Greenwashing remains a major issue for consumers, despite much ongoing publicity including TIME Magazine’s September 2009 cover story
and a lot of case studies.
It's not the first time DJ has covered this issue, either. We've done several pieces
over the last year or so, about the various levels of total breakdown of consumer rights. The fact is that consumers have no idea what they're buying in real terms. Nor do they have much chance of finding out.
Greenwashing is a fully established fact. Consumers, as usual, are taking the brunt of lazy corporations who don’t even understand green technology or concepts, but will use them in their marketing. Around the world, words like “natural” , “ecologically friendly” and “biodegradable” are common, and commonly incorrect.
Meaningless words also mean nobody pays a lot of attention to things like required information on packaging for food. The feelgood approach to buying food is a prime marketing technique, and the mere fact of buying a few kg. of preservatives, food coloring, cellulose and sugars may not be the main area of concern.
That’s very relevant in marketing of foods, where not only the values of the actual content can be blurred, but consumers can remain sublimely unaware of any hazards. Greenwashing is a real end-user part of the problem, but there are still some other serious problems. Public awareness campaigners might also like to take note of the fact that there's some unfinished business in food labeling, too.
Toxic products don’t become less toxic because they’re labeled green or anything else. The big green sales points and the small black list of toxins are a common method of obscuring dietary issues. Most people can’t read food labeling, largely because of the 2 point fonts and the obscure technical language. Some common preservatives are considered toxic by everyone but
the food industry. Sodium nitrite, aka 250, is a case in point. Calling that stuff green is like calling death an alternative lifestyle.
It’s in the industrial zone, however, where misrepresentation is the standard sales routine. Pinning down the exact amount of recycled paper in kitchen wipes, for example, is practically impossible, unless there’s an obligation for accuracy on the manufacturer. There are almost none, globally, except in Europe and California.
Something called “Gaia Wipes” may well contain fewer Asian outworkers per metre or have dolphins making nests out of them, but you could be buying anything. The cleaner may be ecologically friendly on Mars, but not necessarily on Earth.
In the macro economy, where greenwashing first became a term in 1990, this is widespread practice. The pretense of being green is a lot cheaper and easier on the tiny brains than the practice. Greenpeace created a sub-group operation called stopgreenwash.org
to deal with the problem, and it did at least create a public profile for the more absurd claims of green-ness from the major polluters. The current relatively high level of sensitivity of major corporations is based on that very negative profiling.
That mechanism is notably lacking in consumer level economics. The only working laws are misrepresentation and false advertising. Unless you happen to have a chemical analysis lab and a lawyer familiar with the arguments, it’s not easy to prove much.
These areas are actual offenses under commercial law, not environmental or consumer law. Consumer law is becoming more dated by the day as new products come on the market. Food is covered by an interestingly vague series of descriptions depending on where you live. Some would say that consumer protection has gone backwards faster in the food industry than anywhere else. In some cases a thing can be called “organic” if it’s not actually made of plastic, in others the definitions have been re-smudged by qualifiers and tack-on regulations.
Therein lies a tale. According to TIME Magazine’s article, the value of organic products went up by 100% in the years 2005-7. Apparently the obsessive corporate sales freak show, The Masters of Ignorance, by definition completely unaware of any ramifications of any action, went on the gravy train and simply labeled everything it could organic. That 100% equated to $10 billion in extra sales during the period.
There's no lack of information, but a definite lack of motive force in getting change moving. If you check greenwashing online, you'll get lots of hits. Envirowatch
has an interesting greenwashing site which maintains a current news service regarding offenders and issues.
The moral of the story is that being green isn’t getting any easier. Nor are governments noticeably paying a lot of attention. Unless there’s law, there are no laws. Greenwashing will be here to stay unless some case law, and preferably class actions, which get more leverage in statute law, start happening where they get noticed.