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October 5, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Greenwashing: different shades of spin

As ‘green’ marketing becomes more popular, the path to a clear conscience is becoming a bit of a jungle.

Cash crop

Are you a socially and ethically conscious consumer? Congratulations! Catch a ‘green’ cab home, kick off your eco-sneakers, and ask your partner to switch on that renewable energy-powered stove and cook you a couple of organic, free-range eggs.

We’ve never had so many ‘green’ goods and services available. Kath Dewar, marketing consultant, is in no doubt as to why.

“Businesses are looking at the research and seeing what it shows them,” she told bFM’s ‘Sustainable’ Simon in an interview last Tuesday. “Nearly a third of New Zealanders fall into what Moxie Design describe as ‘solution seekers’.”

“These are people who, when they’re making buying decisions, are looking for something that either has better social outcomes, better environmental outcomes, or a little bit of both, so that they don’t get a healthy dollop of guilt with their purchase. They buy things knowing they’ve been made with care for the impact they have around them. That, in New Zealand, is 32 percent of the population with an estimated $2 billion or so to spend every year.”

Globally, the market and consumer base for sustainable products and services is worth US$550 billion per year and counting. With such a lucrative market at stake, many advertisers are willing to mislead consumers in order to nail a sale.

Dewar defines the term greenwashing as “environmental claims that mislead, destruct or exaggerate”. In the UK and US, she says, false ‘green’ claims have “fostered a high degree of skepticism” among consumers, leading to cynicism towards all environmental and social claims and creating “quite a block to progress”.

The seven sins of spin

In January 2009, researchers were sent into major retailers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia to collect data on every product making an environmental claim.

The results, published by TerraChoice in April, were staggering. In the US and Canada, over 2200 products making close to 5000 ‘green’ claims were recorded. Of these, over 98% were found guilty of at least some degree of greenwashing.

The TerraChoice study broke down the concept of greenwashing into seven sins:

#1 Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: e.g. ‘Energy-efficient’ technology made with dangerous materials.

#2 Sin of No Proof: e.g. ‘Certified organic’ beauty products with no verifiable certification.

#3 Sin of Vagueness: e.g. ‘100% natural’ products that contain naturally-occurring poisons like arsenic and formaldehyde.

#4 Sin of Irrelevance: e.g. Products ‘proudly CFC-free’, when CFCs were banned two decades ago.

#5 Sin of Fibbing: e.g. Products falsely claiming to be certified by a recognised environmental standard like Fair Trade.

#6 Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: e.g. Organic cigarettes or ‘environmentally friendly’ pesticides.

#7 Sin of Worshiping False Labels: Fake labels, when a product gives the impression of third-party endorsement when no such endorsement exists.

Kath Dewar is quick to come up with some local examples. “One example is OnGas, which is part of the Vector Energy Group. They have a big section on their website saying that burning gas is environmentally friendly. Yes, it has a lower carbon footprint than burning oil directly, but to try and claim it as good for the environment is a stretch too far.”

Dewar says the OnGas site leaves them wide open to complaints, not just to the Advertising Standards Authority but to the Commerce Commission, “who have just taken a fantastic strong line on environmental information seeking to mislead the public.”

She cites McDonald’s as another example. “They’ve gone for Rainforest Alliance certification of their coffee supplies, which is all well and good on the surface, but then you look at what most coffee and chocolate suppliers do when they’re looking for certification, they go for the best form of consumer guarantee of good practice that they can, which is Fair Trade.”

The Rainforest Alliance programme, “while they do some good stuff”, does not provide guaranteed income for growers. “They had a massive opportunity to be the good guys and deliberately chose not to, so those full-page advertisements last year about how wonderful they were, it’s kind of like ‘yeah right’.”

The Cadbury palm oil scandal is another recent example. “What totally stunned me was that when they were already getting into trouble in the media, they ran a full-page range of ads in the Herald business pages about how much New Zealand milk they used in their chocolate. They completely missed the point.”

Keeping ’em clean: use your certs

Victoria University environmental studies lecturer Dr Sean Weaver believes strong third-party endorsement is the key to beating greenwash.

“It’s a wee bit like when you go and buy your eggs in the supermarket. Quality assurance standards are what sorts the battery eggs from the free range organics and everything in between.

“Those third-party labels aren’t always there,” he explains. “One egg company used to call themselves ‘free range’ eggs because Free Range was the name of the company, and that was a real greenwash.

“If you have strong third-party quality assurance standards, if there’s a third-party label like Biogro and you trust Biogro, then you can be confident that there’s not a greenwash there.”

Certification standards can also help drive competition for a slice of the ‘green’ market. Weaver uses Green Cabs and Combined Taxis as an example.

“The taxi situation is interesting because you had Green Cabs start with a whole fleet of hybrid cars and they’re all painted green, then very soon after that Combined Taxis became carbon-neutral. Of the two, the one that has the higher quality assurance is Combined Taxis because they’ve entered into the CarbonZero programme, a very high-quality carbon trading company run by Landcare Research, whereas Greencabs don’t have any third-party certification.

“That said, Green Cabs were very valuable for the industry because, irrespective of whether they’ve got third-party certification, without them Combined might not have done anything. Combined didn’t want to start a brand-new fleet of hybrids. They wanted to do something with their existing fleet. So, to do it in a way that would earn them market-share or regain market share, they had to choose a high-quality standard.

“If I was Greencabs or I was giving them any advice, I would have gone with the third-party certification from the beginning and then there’d be no debate.”

Weaver believes third-party organisations have an important role to play in the monitoring of green marketing. “There are those who claim to be green when they’re not, and that’s a job for NGOs as watchdogs.

“If those watchdogs expose the bullshit, then the companies that get exposed in that way get punished in the marketplace. If watchdogs don’t do the due diligence on these claims, then anyone can make a claim and the consumer won’t know the difference.”

Dirty dairying?

Greenpeace senior campaigner Simon Boxer agrees that NGOs have a responsibility to act as greenwash watchdogs.

“One of our roles is to look behind what is said publicly, and all the fine-tuning of messaging that comes out of a lot of corporations. If you look into it you can find out the real facts and figures, but it takes a lot of work.”

In late August, a Sunday Star Times exclusive linked Fonterra’s importation of palm kernel animal feed to the destruction of Indonesian rain forests. Boxer believes the palm kernel controversy is a serious example of greenwash in action.

“The industry claims that palm kernel products are sustainable but with a bit of research you find out that very little of what’s being supplied is sustained by any measure, and even then the sustainability measures are very weak.

“There’s talk about palm kernel expeller (PKE) as a waste product but that’s just not true,” he says. “If you talk to people in the palm industry, they don’t consider it as a waste product, yet ministers stand up in parliament and spout off the rubbish that they’ve been advised by the dairy industry.”

Boxer is cautious about applying the term greenwash to the entire dairy industry, but suggests that New Zealand dairy’s ‘clean, green’ and efficient image may no longer be accurate.

“It’s a hard one because it’s such a diverse industry,” he admits. “One problem is that Fonterra won’t reveal any real information. They announced the carbon footprint for their products, then, when we got a copy of the report under the Official Information Act, they blanked out all the data so there was no way to independently verify it.

“That said, we know their footprint has risen dramatically over the last five years. On the world stage, we’re getting close to the intensive dairying seen in Europe and the US.”

Reverse spin

Evan Smeath, Hukerunui dairy farmer and former Ballance Farm Environment Award winner, is concerned that some commentators are implying ‘dirty dairying’ is rampant in New Zealand.

“That actually annoys me immensely because their criticism might only be based on one person’s actions, whereas everybody else is really trying their best.”

He says farmers like the Crafar family, who were recently fined $90,000 for environmental offences and accused of allowing over 100 bobby calves to starve to death, “do not belong in our dairy industry at all, they’ve got to shape up or ship out.”

In terms of the palm kernel scandal, Smeath believes Greenpeace’s tactics have developed into harmful media spin of a different kind.

“Greenpeace are trying to get media attention, to get backing on their side, but they’re going overboard,” he says. “If they want to do make a difference, why don’t they put something in about the people who are actually doing a good job? You never hear Greenpeace applauding something; it’s always pulling someone down.”

Smeath says that, while most farmers are genuinely concerned about the environment, the approach currently used by Greenpeace is not effective.

“Too much criticism gets people’s backs up and makes them think ‘stuff you, we’ll do it when we’re ready’. If Greenpeace actually worked with people and said, ‘this is a good idea’, they’d get more credibility and we’d get more change happening.”

Dr Mike Scarsbrook, DairyNZ sustainability development team leader, points out that dairy farmers are as susceptible to ‘green’ spin as any other consumer group.

“In our dealings with farmers we find they are generally very wary of snake-oil merchants trying to take advantage of the imperative to adopt sustainable farming technologies.

“DairyNZ’s role is to show them where they need to invest their time and resources to lower their footprint, and to test new practices and technologies to give them confidence to adopt them on their own farms.”

Smeath agrees. “One of the biggest things is educating and being able to understand a lot of the information that’s out there, and to believe it. With the economic situation the way it is, farmers won’t spend on sustainable practices and technology unless they’re sure it’ll work. We want it to be tried and true by reputable organisations to make sure it’s the way to go.”

He and around 30 other Northland farmers have formed their own watchdog group, the Northland Dairy Action Team, to monitor and facilitate environmental initiatives in the area.

How deep the wash?

A fundamentalist environmentalist observer could argue that a deeper kind of greenwash exists in New Zealand. For example, Combined Taxis may be bona fide carbon neutral but a taxi company can never be considered truly environmentally friendly. Are we cheating our way to a clear conscience? Will hedonistic over-indulgent capitalism never be overthrown? Wouldn’t cycling be better?

Victoria University environmental studies lecturer Dr Sean Weaver disagrees. “If we want people to be cycling more, we should promote cycling but we shouldn’t kick the ass of anyone who puts a voluntary measure in place.”

He points out that our society is not going to stop consuming anytime soon. “It’s taken centuries to get to where we are now and that’s not going to be changed overnight. We can promote the best behaviour as much as we can, carpooling, people getting on their bikes, that sort of thing, but the vast majority of people are not going to do that.”

“Here’s a thought. Say 95 percent of people aren’t going to get on their bikes, but what if they were prepared to change a little bit, and that change was aggregated? One step each for four million people is four million steps. The small steps in the other direction have added up to climate change, so one of the big parts in our toolbox is to help the vast majority to take steps in the other direction.

“Once they’ve done taken the first step, the second step is a little easier, and the third step even easier, so what may look like a token gesture may actually help to shift their sense of self-identity, in which case the next thing they do is more significant.”

Like farmer Ewan Smeath, Weaver is aware of the risks associated with excessive criticism. “Nobody wants to have guilt landed on them. They’ll say ‘Piss off, I’m not playing your game and I don’t like you guys, you’re freaks and I don’t think you should be voted into parliament.’ It’s easy to criticise but if we want to be effective, I would argue very strongly that we’re better off using encouragement whenever possible.”

As the tide of ‘green’ spreads slowly through our consumer options, Weaver offers some final advice to the would-be environmentalist.

“We need to vote with our feet as consumers, which means looking at labels, looking where things come from. If it’s got palm oil in it, then it’s probably come from a rainforest in Indonesia that’s killed orangutans and destroyed rainforests.

“Be a discerning consumer, but also look for quality and only buy things that you really need to buy. If you’re depressed and need some retail therapy, then lie down and do a laughing meditation or something.”

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (2)

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  1. Ms. Dewar’s criticisms of the Rainforest Alliance certification program are unfounded. Many companies large and small all around the world decide to buy products from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms because they are meeting strict environmental, social and economic standards. True, we don’t focus on the price at which products are traded, but rather on whole farm management. The program empowers farmers to be better business people, to control costs, increase production, improve quality, build their own competence in trading, build workforce and community cohesion and pride, manage their precious natural resources and protect the environment.

  2. Callum Brown says:

    Fisrtly great article. It raises an interesting point…
    “Which is more eco friendly. The company with all Hybrids, or the company with a few Hybrids and a lot of petrol and LPG falcons and Holdens that has certification….?

    Things unfortunately aren’t always as they appear. The fisrt thing Green Cabs did was go to a third party before we launched and said we are putting together and environmentally friendly taxi company and want to be certified. The problem is that all certification programs take a reduction approach to certification. Therefore the company wanting to be certified needs to provide a baseline and from there set about reducing their footprint. If you don’t reduce your footprint you run the risk of losing your certification.
    Therein lies the problem at Green Cabs we selected the lowest emission vehicles available and ran with them. we employed the best practices throughout our offices regarding recycling, waste minimuisation and recycling, energy conservation. This was all put in place from day 1. We employed best practice from day 1. The rub is that doesn’t fit with the way certification programs are set up.
    Okay so as I was saying we went along to the certification provider and asked to get certified. Their response to us was you have to have been trading for at least a year first and you have to reduce your emissions from that point on in order to retain your certification. Forget about the fact that we employed best practice.
    The certification body we approached none other than Carbon Zero through Land Care Reasearch.

    As a further note we Also looked at carbon credits and decided that on the whole they were bollocks, that the projects had already been completed and often didn’t reduce the amount of CO2 produced anyway. A good example of this is windfarms – meridian energy builds a wind farm – does this result in a net reduction in CO2 production through energy generation in New Zealand? In short no. Think of it like this will meridian building a wind farm result in Solid Energy cutting back production using coal or Contact Energy using gas? Of course it won’t.
    We decided we make much more of a difference in the world if we planted trees. Think about it if we still had all the rainforests (and other forest and bushland for that matter) would we still have a problem?? possibly not, trees soak up a hell of a lot of CO2. and provide a long list of other benefits such as
    providing food & shelter
    reversing diversification
    moderating climate
    providing a habitat for flora and fauna

    Imagine if everyone in the world planted just one tree, what a difference that would make (population according to good old wikipedia estimated to be 6.8 billion this year 2009).

    The fact is we’d be far better planting more trees around the world and installing windmills on peoples homes so they can generate their own electricity.
    The point is that if people think outside of the options that are being put in front of them by the powers that be there are far better solutions out there. We just have to change the way we think and not be so accepting of the options we are being given – Demand more, Demand better. After all it is only our planet we are trying to save and I don’t have another one, Do you?

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