For manufacturers, one of the most comprehensive impacts on their business practice has been the dramatic emergence of the green supply chain. According to a 2011 study of execs conducted earlier this year by IFS North America, a robust 77 percent of manufacturers are now part of a green supply chain, and the numbers continue to climb.
The remaining minority of manufacturers, by and large, believe it’s only a matter of time before they’ll join a green supply chain, and when it comes to their reasons for going green, most cite internal altruistic motivations like “social responsibilities” and “management directives” well ahead of outside factors like tax incentives or product liabilities.
It’s clear that manufacturers and their logistics handlers have successfully made a science out of cost-effectively moving products through the supply chain, yet traditionally, that “cost” has been viewed solely in monetary terms. Today, it seems more businesses are looking at the subject ever broader, recognizing the costs of their efforts in the context of sustainability too. Clearly, there’s much to celebrate here, as the business imperative of going green has been one of the most swift and comprehensive trends in recent American business history.
But the change is far from complete and fraught with potential problems. Communication among business partners is key for this transition to fulfill its true promise. Manufacturers must realize that simply “linking in” to green supply chains is merely a first step. It’s vitally important they also recognize the inherent obligation to clearly and transparently share insights with their supply chain about environmental impacts.
The Gray Issue of Making Green Claims
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has drafted, but not yet ratified revised Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, a.k.a “Green Guides” for communicating specific green claims like “biodegradable,” “recyclable,” or “carbon neutral.” The Guides were last revised in 1998 – long before the green movement had picked up inertia. To understand how prevalent green marketing has become since that time, consider the research from TerraChoice that in the year between 2009 and 2010, the number of products claiming to be green increased by a whopping 73 percent. They also found that 95 percent of those products commit one or more of their so-called “seven sins of greenwashing.” One gets a sense for how rampant false environmental claims may have become.
So what are TerraChoice’s seven deadly greenwashing sins? Here’s the list to keep you and your company in check when talking to your green supply chain:
1.) The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off – committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally preferable just because it comes from a sustainably harvested forest. Other important environmental issues include energy, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.
2.) The Sin of No Proof – committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are products that claim post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence;
3.) The Sin of Vagueness – committed by claims that are so poorly defined or broad that their real meaning is likely to be misunderstood. The phrase “all-natural” is an example. Arsenic, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and at the same time poisonous;
4.) The Sin of Irrelevance – committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. “CfC-free” is a common example; the fact is CfCs are banned by law;
5.) The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils – committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes might be an example of this.
6.) The Sin of Fibbing –committed by making environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered;
7.) The Sin of Worshipping False Labels – committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists. Beware of fake labels!
No doubt, these sins are easy to fall prey to. But rather than relying on generic or hyperbolic claims to convey our green attributes, what if we strive to communicate these according to less elusive means like reputable labels or, verifiable statistics? How much cleaner would our world be if we quantified – and then engaged in regular dialogue – about the precise, year-over-year environmental impacts of companies’ electricity, emissions, waste and water use?
As another Earth Day passes, let’s resolve to get a clearer sense for the sustainable direction of our supply chain partners by asking them more about the certifiable environmental impacts of their products. After all, companies who demand substantiation and verification from their suppliers aren’t being business-rude, they’re being planet-friendly. At the end of the day, who can argue with sharing best practices when the end result is more environmental clarity and transparency? As they saw, green business is a shared business!
Steve Ott is the Sustainable Business Development Manager for Cascades Tissue Group’s U.S. Away-From-Home Division in Waterford, New York, and a recurring contributor to the company’s blog, SUSTAIN: The Professional Forum for Sustainable Towel and Tissue. Cascades Tissue sells the North River line of environmentally preferable towel and tissue products, which are composed entirely of recycled paper and mostly from post-consumer material and are produced using Green-e certified wind energy and 80 percent less water than the North American paper industry average. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (518) 880-3678.