Are You Being Greenwashed?

The ins and outs of eco-friendly, green labeling and advertising on products

We’ve all seen them. The ads that feature a picture of a forest and the vague terms “ozone-safe.” The bottle of cleaner that is labeled “eco-friendly.” The claim of “biodegradable” without clarifying whether that refers to the product or the packaging.

These broad terms and vague phrases are often included in product advertising or mentioned in corporate communication materials, but what do they actually mean?

The answer is a work in progress.

In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established the Green Guides. These guides provide direction for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business claims, including labeling, advertising, promotional materials and all other forms of marketing.

If a marketer makes an environmental claim inconsistent with the guides, the FTC can take action if it can prove that “the challenged act or practice is unfair or deceptive in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.” Section 5 prohibits ‘‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.’’

With these guides in place, progress has been made toward defining and regulating these terms. In fact, in October 2013, the FTC announced five enforcement actions that address biodegradable plastic claims for the first time.

The downside is, even with the establishment of the Green Guides, there is still a lot of confusion and the potential for companies to “greenwash” their customers.

Greenwashing refers to the practice of deceiving consumers into believing that a company is practicing environmentally friendly policies and procedures. Environmentalist Jay Westervelt is credited with coining the term in 1986.

There are thousands of so-called “green” products, but not all of them live up to their claims. In fact, one watchdog organization claims as many as 95 percent of consumer products make some kind of false claim about their environmental friendliness—whether it’s by using a term that is poorly defined, like “all natural,” or highlighting one true claim while downplaying other negative aspects.

At its most innocuous, greenwashing is a nuisance, confusing customers and encouraging purchases based, at the very least, on unsubstantiated claims. On the other hand, at its most detrimental, greenwashing can lead companies down a false path. By exploiting a desire to find sustainable solutions, companies that greenwash persuade customers to make decisions that can harm the environment—the polar opposite of customer intentions.

So how do you, as a business trying to select a vendor, make an educated decision? How can you wade through the terms like “green,” “environmentally friendly” and “biodegradable” to better understand these claims?

Research, analysis and following your gut are good places to start.

Here are a few ways to put them into practice:

Don’t judge a product by its packaging. Beware of unverified claims, outrageous promises, vague documentation and overzealous “green” packaging. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Do an online search. Simply researching a product or the manufacturer will often reveal the level of a product's greenness. It’s recommended that you look at sites beyond a company’s domain, such as news outlets and government agencies, to get a more complete picture of their environmental practices.

Look for natural ingredients. The EPA recommends minimizing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and, when possible, using “renewable resources, such as bio-based solvents from citrus, seed, vegetable, and pine oils.” These plant-based extracts are typically less harmful to the environment and safer for consumers than chemical alternatives.

Check the labels. Learn to identify the various symbols and understand which ones are officially regulated certifications.  For example, did you know that the common, “three chasing arrow” recycling symbol is actually part of the public domain? Although misleading use of the logo can be prohibited under the FTC Act, there is no legal trademark that prevents someone from including the symbol on packaging or communication materials.

Find organizations you can trust for information. Use third-party findings to uncover the truth on a company and its products. Organizations like the following provide specific certifications and unbiased information to consumers:

Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)

Chlorine Free Products Association (CFPA)

UL Environment

Energy Star

Green Seal

Consider the product's entire life cycle. The majority of greenwashed products tout one eco-friendly feature while ignoring the harmful aspects of the rest of the production cycle. Choose retailers and products that offer the most detailed information about their processes and support their claims with sustainability reports.

For example, The Deb Group, the world’s leading away-from-home skin care company, dedicates a section of its website to environmental management.  Deb recognizes that investing in environmental management and striving to improve environmental performance, is aligned with conventional business objectives, such as building sales and profit and strengthening customer relationships.

The site outlines the five strands to Deb’s approach to environmental management: chemistry, dispensers, manufacturing and logistics, management systems and external collaboration and communication. Rather than being a piece of corporate jargon, illustrated with photos of flowers and trees, it stresses real activities and is illustrated with hard evidence.

The more experience you have putting these tips into practice, the more they will become second- nature and an integrated part of your vendor evaluation process. And by making informed decisions and ensuring that the product’s claims are accurate, you can feel good about the choices you make and their positive impact on the environment.

About the Author

Tom Wirostek is vice president of marketing at Deb Group, the world’s leading away-from-home skin care company. In his present role, Wirostek works with customers across a wide range of industries to provide innovative and market-leading skin care programs that improve employee health and safety and environmental impact while reducing costs. With nearly 30 years of marketing experience, Tom holds a Bachelor of Arts in marketing from Michigan State University and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Xavier University. For more information on effective strategies for improving workplace hygiene, please visit