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April 15, 2009


Bruce K

There is undoubtedly a lot of greenwashing in the marketplace today, but you make a key point that it is hard to separate hype from "claims" in the ad game. Until advertisements begin to resemble legal documents we are going to be stuck with a wide variety of advertising strategies where the facts merge with the hype. One other point needs to be made and no offense to Mr. Case or TerraChoice is intended, but the arguments for certification are very self-serving. There is a lot of scuffling going on over eco-labeling and there are many "competing" brands, e.g. Cradle to Cradle, EcoLogo, etc. I cannot blame SC Johnson or any other manufacturer for choosing not to pay the fees required for a label that has close to zero recognition with consumers. I have also reviewed Johnson's website and their criteria make sense to me and their own label is as meaningful to me as a third party's. A similar skirmish is going to take place in the carbon space over carbon accounting and we have to take care in not creating expensive systems of "verification" that add minimal value.

Bruce K

P.S. Visit the ecolabeling website if you haven't done so before and you will get a good idea of how much "competition" there is in the space. http://ecolabelling.org/
Few of these labels or certifications, if any, have much meaning to the average consumer (or even to the sophisticated greenie) because they all differ.

Marc Gunther

Joel, I think you are entirely too kind to TerraChoice and this survey. It's designed to generate headlines, not constructive debate. Imagine if a company said: "We've read 1,000 news articles about us and 950 have errors so how can you trust the news media? But we won't tell you who they are or allow them to defend themselves." Ridiculous. So is this survey. They're asking for accountability and yet they are accountable to no one.

Mike Lawrence

Marc, it’s true that it would have been better if TerraChoice had named names. (Maybe concern about dealing with 2,219 angry corporate lawyers made them think twice!) But Joel, I’d agree with Scot Case that what you call “typical hyperbole” does not belong in environmental marketing. Unfortunately it’s what advertising agencies and marketers are trained to do. They call it “puffery” and we spend a lot of time trying to squeeze it out of our clients’ environmental communications. Unfortunately, the FTC allows it. But in marketing about environmental impact, exaggeration should not be tolerated based on the bizarre rationalization that it is too extreme to believe. It deceives and confuses consumers on a topic that is crying out for clarity. And the eco-labeling traffic jam doesn’t help. Joel, it may be true that SC Johnson is doing the Lord’s work. But after reading the company’s online PowerPoint slides explaining its Greenlist methodology, I am still left wondering whether consumers have a right to expect such “acceptable-better-best” ratings to be made or validated by a third party rather than a corporation that has to juggle self interest and public interest.

Mario Vellandi

The 3rd party certification criteria is a valid one, but for certain product categories it just may not seem viable (single v. multi-attribute, credibility, fees). In that regard, I couldn't give a definitive "saint v. sinner" assessment based on this one aspect across the board - therefore we should take the survey results with a grain of salt.

Knowing the issues surrounding individual product categories would immensely help add context and insight (although that's something I wouldn't trust any research agency to comprehensively cover in a single report - nor would even want to read).

Loreto Duffy-Mayers

I think this statement sums it all up "The challenge seems to be that their rhetoric is outpacing the actual improvements that they're making".
Too many people have jumped on the Green bandwagon without really understanding what it is all about and many have fallen victim to the certification programmes some of which are only in it for the money too. Education is the issue and consumers need to be made aware that green claims should to be verified before they are accepted.

Scot Case

Joel –

Great piece. I’m glad to see that the Seven Sins of Greenwashing report (http://www.sinsofgreenwashing.org) is stimulating exactly the kind of conversation about clarifying definitions of and tolerance for greenwashing.

While TerraChoice decided not to reveal the names of the products in the 2009 Seven Sins of Greenwashing Report, the main purpose of the study is to help educate consumers and marketers about avoiding the pitfalls of greenwashing. It’s designed to help consumers, marketers, and manufacturers ask better questions.

And change is already taking place. Since the release of TerraChoice’s original 2007 report, both the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Canada’s Competition Bureau have announced their intention to overhaul their environmental consumer protection activities. As you mentioned, Senator Feinstein is looking into possible solutions to the label proliferation problem.

The 2009 Sins of Greenwashing Report sets out some tips for consumers looking to make safe and environmentally responsible purchasing choices. For example:

(a) Keep supporting greener products. As consumers, we have enormous power to shape the marketplace. The worst result of greenwashing would be to give up.

(b) Look for, and choose, products with reliable eco-labels.

(c) In the absence of a reliable eco-label, remember the Seven Sins of Greenwashing (http://www.sinsofgreenwashing.org) and choose the product that does the best job at transparency, information and education.

(d) Read up on our green-shopping tools by visiting (http://www.sinsofgreenwashing.org).

While we might quibble with each other about where to draw the line of “acceptable” environmental marketing – is it OK for a company to tell us their products are green or should we demand proof that there are no cancer-causing chemicals in the product? We’re both definitely trying to promote wider use of truly greener products.

Thank you for keeping the conversation going.

- Scot


Talking sense here - There are so many common misconceptions surrounding sustainability - Check out our myth-busting video “What’s Your Big Green Lie?!” which gives a taste of the widespread ignorance of green issues at http://www.biggreenlies.com.

Ryan Jones

Great article here, tks...I'm glad that TerraChoice is stepping up and raising difficult issues in this space. However, with "link-bait" articles like this, they risk pushing not only consumers away...but also companies intent on pushing ahead with honest Green innovation. Not helpful.

Kara Davidson


Thanks for the post and the analysis. I think the key point is that the study "lacks transparency and accountability." It basically removes the integral piece it needs to contribute to the discussion and understanding of the marketplace by not being open.

Jeremy Stieglitz

Claims aren't worth much. Independent and unbiased testing and certification services *can* reveal the truth. And you can see this very clearly in the disparity between claims and actual performance in LED lighting.

That market is filled with over-promises and under-delivery. Fortunately, in the LED lighting (aka solid state lighting) world, the U.S. government has stepped up (tremendously) and has established CALipers, a DOE independent test and certification facility.


We need similar large scale independent groups across the gamut of cleantech.

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