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How to Avoid Greenwashing and Label Your Product Correctly

Yes, greenwashing exists. Yes, people do it intentionally and unintentionally. And yes, it’s probable that behind any company promoting a green agenda you will most likely be able to find a practice or two that does not completely conform to sustainable practices. However, as I’ve discussed before, “environmentally friendly” means different things to different people. The best way to clearly and succinctly convey information about the sustainable parts of a product is through labeling. With appropriate labeling, the sustainable aspects of production, materials used, packaging, and even post life of a product can be correctly portrayed. The problem is, as usual, with the government’s system of environmental labeling and regulation of green marketing. While green marketing falls under the same restrictions as traditional marketing, most notably what is known as “no false advertising,” widespread incorrect usage and interpretation of “green products” claims has turned green marketing into the Wild West, but with the twist of painting the town green.

Therefore, the responsibility to correctly and accurately label products, and ensure that consumers know what those labels mean, is falling on the business industry. To spread the good word about what these labels mean, below is a brief explanation of how to label your green products, large or small, as defined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

General Claims

Often products paint a broad picture by using terminology like “environmentally friendly” or “eco-safe,” but by being deliberately vague, little to no information is actually conveyed. In addition to written claims, companies often use imagery such as the Earth or green imaging on labeling. The FTC does not regulate against making ambiguous, generic claims about products and seldom enforces correct green labeling, but instead merely provides a guide of suggested meanings. In general, using “environmentally friendly” or “green” to describe your product with no further clarification should be avoided at all times, if not because it is illegal, then at least to maintain your integrity.

Recycling

Luring in consumers with nonspecific labeling like “recyclable” is tempting, but misleading. Specifying if the packaging or materials is recyclable is critical. Additionally, if products are made from recycled materials, it is essential to identify where the recycled materials actually came from. Using descriptive words like “post consumer” (used consumer or business products) or “pre-consumer”, meaning manufacturing waste, is a good way to specify the claims you are making. Saying “10% more recycled material” would be a prime example of how not to label your products, due to the lack of clear comparison. Utilizing recycled products is an ideal way to reduce waste and promote green business practices, but only through explicit labels describing products, packaging, and processes, can the recyclable claims be made with confidence and clarity.

Degradable and Compostable

Biodegradable is a term commonly used to describe a wide range of products. Essentially, a biodegradable product will decompose into elements found in nature (not the same as natural), when exposed to air, bacteria, and moisture. Photo degradable is usually applied to plastic components, which will disintegrate into smaller pieces when exposed to the same elements. Compostable products will break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as paper. When these terms were coined, it was fairly obvious what the claims meant and what would occur after the product was disposed of. Now, however, with post consumer products often ending up in closed landfills without exposure to natural processes, if you are attempting to highlight the quick and organic decomposition of your product, compostable is the term that should be used.

3rd Party Seals and Certifications

One of the easiest ways to confuse consumers and convince them of the veracity of your “green” claims is by putting a prominent seal on your product. Regardless of the fact that the seal may actually stand for your local Kiwanis Club, any sign of authority is perceived to be a mark of legitimacy. Third party seals and certificates are an easy way to greenwash, but they can also be a great way to authenticate the “green” claims you are making. Within many industries, third party companies exist that have developed a set of standards to which practices can be compared.  If your company receives an award or wishes to use a seal to promote their green practices, it is imperative that the 3rd party’s standards as well as well as a list of the companies they support is provided to the public.

Green labeling is a mixed bag. Reputable companies may be doing their best to accurately describe environmentally processes and fail. Disreputable companies may be doing their best to inaccurately describe their practices and succeed. In the confusion, consumers are suspicious of any green labeling claim. So is it worth it to promote green practices? Yes. By using clear and descriptive labeling, describing which part of your product’s life cycle is environmentally friendly, and doing research on the third party authorities in your field, green labeling can be used with pride to promote the environmental initiatives of your company.

Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb.  She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology.  She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.

Emily McClendon
Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology. She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.
 
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One thought on “How to Avoid Greenwashing and Label Your Product Correctly

  1. Dear Emily;

    We at UL DQS, Inc. agree whole heartedly with your observations and comments and as a separate entity (i.e. from UL) focused on quality and sustainability management system certification and newly launched advisory services I would offer a simple truth, ‘the proof is in the pudding’. In the management systems world strictly controlled third party assessment of internal organization policies, practices and procedures can ensure that greenwashing of products is reduced or even eliminated before the product rolls out the door thorough and routine application of assessment such that our firm completes such as ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001, ISO 50001 and related social responsibility global standards. We integrate these quality assessments with sustainable practice assessments to validate such claims at the process level. These processes and manufacturing practices are the ‘nuts and bolts’ of making products that claim to be green. A green product must result from a green process.

    I would glad to open a discussion forum on this subject matter with you and your readers.

    Don Macdonald
    Director, Sustainability Practice
    UL DQS, Inc.

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