Environmental Issues,  Sustainable Accreditation

What is Greenwashing

In recent years, it has become increasingly common to see the word “eco” on products in order to indicate that they are eco-friendly. This eco labelling is helpful for the consumer that wishes to make more environmentally-friendly purchasing decisions. However, the question remains: Are the products that claim to be “eco” really ecologically safe? Greenwashing, a situation where a product is labelled as ‘green’ or ‘eco’ but is not actually as the label claims, has been an ongoing problem for more than 30 years.

Greenwashing refers to advertisements and corporate activities that are not environmentally friendly but are made to appear environmentally friendly. It is  greenwashing to put the words “eco” or “environmentally friendly” in the advertisements and labels of products for marketing purposes to mislead consumers, even though they are not really environmentally friendly products. 

One famous example of greenwashing practices is the 1985 case of the Chevron Corporations ‘People Do’ campaign ad launch. This was aimed at socially conscientious consumers, considered hostile to the oil industry. The advertisement itself showed the employees of Chevron protecting all manner of wildlife including bears, butterflies and sea turtles. These images had nothing to do with the oil company and there were no noted company-wide sustainability initiatives that was based in the advertisement. The ads were simply false. And although there is no such thing as ‘green oil’ this greenwashing campaign was so successful, it was still effective even 15 years later – showing ever increasing sales & a California customer base that polled a higher trust for Chevron than competing oil companies. (Corpwatch) Given this deceptive business practice of greenwashing product labels and advertisements, how does the smart and eco-friendly consumer avoid these particular products and feel safe in the knowledge that we have selected products that are truly environmentally friendly? 

Be a wise consumer

A company called Futerra discussed greenwashing in its 2015 report on sustainable sales. Futerra is  a member of the United Nations Global Compact which specializes in corporate activity advertising and other consulting services. Here are Futerra’s 10 points to watch out for

Best to avoid if the product…

1. Fluffy language: Uses words or terms that have no clear meaning, such as “eco-friendly”.

2. Green products vs. dirty company: Such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory which pollutes rivers.

3. Suggestive pictures: Green images that indicate a (un-justified) green impact. Ie; flowers blooming from exhaust pipes.

4. Irrelevant claims: Emphasising one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green.

5. Best in class? Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.

6. Just not credible: ‘Eco friendly’ cigarettes, anyone? ‘Greening’ a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.

7. Gobbledygook: Uses jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand

8. Imaginary friends: A ‘label’ that looks like third party endorsement…except that its made up.

9. No proof: It could be right, but where’s the evidence?

10. Out-right lying: Totally fabricated claims or data.

Check the certification label

Although familiar with the above points to avoid greenwashed products, it can be an inconvenient task to perform a 10-point check on each product when shopping. In fact, according to a study on the purchasing behavior of eco-friendly products, among those who purchase eco-friendly products, many make the selections by judging eco-friendly companies based on their energy-saving performance and corporate social contribution activities. It seems to be a minority of respondents who are confident that their products are truly environmentally friendly. Therefore, it is advisable to pay attention to the authentication label. There are various types of certification systems, but accredited products that have been certified to meet environmental standards after undergoing a rigorous examination are displayed with the certification label. If the product boasts a certification label, a quick glance can tell the consumer that it is a legitimate eco-product. 

Below are listed three representative certification systems that are used internationally as reliable certifications.

① Marine eco label 

The marine eco-label is a certification given to sustainable seafood that meets the strict certification standards of the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). This label is only awarded only when the MSC is able to certify for both the fishing of the seafood and for the entire process from manufacturing through to the selling point of the seafood. Certification of fisheries is audited by an independent body based on three principles: Resource sustainability, the impact of fisheries on the ecosystem, and the management system for the fisheries.

② RSPO certification

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification is given for the production and use of sustainable palm oil. This certification system consists of a certification process of the production stage such as farms and oil mills, and certification regarding all stages of the supply chain from the production to the distribution of the palm oil. *Note that in order to respond to the complicated supply chain, the certification is divided into 3 sub-sections (1) palm oil that can identify producers (2) palm that is produced from certified farms and (3)  palm oil, which is a mixture of certified oil and non-certified oil in the production process. 

③ Rainforest Alliance certification

The Rainforest Alliance certification label is given to businesses that meet environmental, social, and economic sustainability standards in the agriculture, forestry, and tourism industries. This certification is characterized by the frog logo. In the case of tourism, it is a recognition that the surrounding ecosystem is protected, natural resources are used wisely, and that social and cultural benefits are provided to the local communities. Hotels and travel operators in Latin America and the Caribbean that are Rainforest Alliance Certified can be found from the Rainforest Alliance ‘Green Vacations’ page, so be sure to check it when you travel to these areas. 

④ Other certification systems 

Aside from the three global certifications listed above, there are certification systems which operate independently in each country or region. For example, in USA, Energy Star is a common energy efficiency certification. In Japan, one of the most commonly seen certification labels is the “Eco Mark,” which is given to products with a low environmental impact from “production” to “disposal.”  Australia has the ACO – Australian Certified Organic stamp. 

The EU has the “EU eco-label” and “EU organic certification” as typical certification labels. The EU Ecolabel is a consumer certification label that is granted to about 40,000 products and services in more than 30 categories which includes: shampoo, clothing, appliances, hotels, etc. Experts, including in consumer organizations and in the industry, review the entire product life cycle, from raw materials to manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and use. It can be said that this is a highly reliable certification system because 65% of consumers in the EU trust this certification. The EU Organic Certification is a certification label given to organic foods produced in the EU. This is only given if more than 95% of the food is made of organic ingredients and the remaining 5% meets stringent requirements. Consumers interested in finding a listing of the global eco labels, can find them on the Ecolabel Index.

Greenwashing does not only occur on product labelling but also in the services sector with regards to services like tours and hotels. If a traveller wants to utilise the services of a certified travel tour or hotel, it is recommended to look for a tour or hotel that has a certification label which meets the standards of GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council). This website lists the GSTC accredited certifying bodies so it’s a good idea to do some research first to ensure that the tour or hotel is certified by these agencies.

In summary, it is important for the consumer to pay attention to product labelling to avoid greenwashed products. Authentication labels are a useful tool that encourages responsible consumer behavior and makes it possible for consumers to make sustainable purchasing decisions. The certification labels introduced this time are just a few of the many eco labels in the world. Some international labels are unique to your country or region, so be sure to check the label on the packaging when you travel abroad, or take a look at the ecolabels directory before embarking on the journey. 

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