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Green's Name in Vain 

The Greenwashing Index empowers the fraud squad

07.22.09


Some days, I just hate to hear the word "green," especially if a corporation is using it in marketing materials. As a connoisseur of irony, I study the worst of them before rolling my eyes at the shiny bright labels of promised utopias and the we're-going-green banners sentimentally illustrated with a Costa Rican tree frog, the ubiquitous rain-forest icon putting a cute face on a vague pronouncement. Just stop it already.

When green marketing claims turn out to be slimier than an amphibian and ultimately less attractive, I get a little irritated. OK, really irritated. As world temperatures fluctuate, water resources decline and concern about resuscitating life on earth spreads from fringe groups to mainstream, it's really everyone's business to demand less bullshit in the marketplace. But how?

Because green chic invites pretenders and because it is increasingly "hot" to be identified with the climate-protection efforts, whether you are making real changes or just blathering, we need metrics and a fraud squad to do the job right.

My own need for measurable proof dates back to when the false green claims began popping up in the product arena. And never stopped. Marketers still use the adjectives "green," "natural" and "sustainable" to hide a number of sins. But thanks to one environmental marketing group, these sins have been made public more than two decades after the term "greenwashing" was coined.

TerraChoice marketing has analyzed more than a thousand so-called green consumer products and found that 99 percent misrepresented the touted environmental benefits of the product. Making up what the group calls the "Six Sins of Greenwashing" are hidden trade-offs, lack of proof, vagueness, irrelevance, fibbing and the-lesser-of-two-evils approach. At their website, you can print a card-sized breakdown of the definitions to take shopping with you.

But for some educational fun, try a website where citizens can analyze and report green fraud: the Greenwashing Index (www.greenwashingindex.com), promoted by EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Using this reporting tool, anyone can analyze the relevance of marketing claims, leading to a score that ranges from 1 (authentic) to 5 (bogus). Visiting this site was a real morale booster for me, especially reading the postings by other members of the fraud squad.

One passionate reviewer assessed a television commercial called "Green Britain Day" with the following: "This is a mythical and grotesque distortion of reality. EDF, √Člectricit√© de France, is presenting itself as British and green; it is, in fact, a French-government-owned nuclear energy company with fuel-burning power stations. For this campaign that is rumored to have a budget of 50 million British pounds, they have simply taken the iconic green Union Jack flag that was created by Ecotricity (a genuinely 100 percent green energy provider) and blasted it across the British media as their own. It is not just deceptive, it is cruel. Brits will think that EDF is friendly, and it is not. It is toxic. This company is shameful, and its advertising is nothing more than climate-change war propaganda." Wow. EDF earned a 4.6 on the bogus meter for that one.

Another reviewer noticed that a bug spray container of 25 percent recycled plastic was cause for marketers to brand their insect poison as EcoSense. "This is just funny," the reviewer wrote. For that greenwashing, Ortho earned a 4.6.

Power plants and bug killers are obvious targets. But what about groovy clothing companies? Banana Republic offers discounts to customers who shop with a reusable bag sold at the store. But one reviewer exposed that no discounts go to those who use their own reusable bags. That earned Banana Republic a 3.5 for a self-serving campaign they call "It's Easy Being Green." Apparently not.

If I hoisted a marketing banner expressing my disagreement with Banana Republic and promoting the Greenwashing Index at the same time, it would include a frog. Not the face of a South American icon, but a local one: Kermit, the Muppet frog. I think Kermit had a prescient grasp of the effort involved in adopting good-for-all practices. It's easy to greenwash. But it's not easy being green.



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