As individuals make the shift toward green living- whether sincerely making changes in their daily habits or just buying into the trendy and high-profile opportunities to look green, businesses and brands are finding a high profitability in aligning themselves with the green movement as well. Part of this is hopefully a true shift in priorities for industry, based on the recent realizations that business has an impact well beyond what is immediately visible from corporate headquarters. But a good part of it is still just for show. Like an individual who slaps a "save the polar bears" bumper sticker on their SUV and hopes that no one notices their carbon footprint, a company that brags about being green (but has little to show for it) is dangerous for a gullible society like ours.
Hunter Lovins was recently interviewed by Sustainable Industries, and when the topic of greenwashing came up, she said that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change" said Lovins. I see her point, and I agree that trying to look good is at least acknowledging that being good is something to strive for. She goes on in the interview with some examples of companies like GE that started out with blatantly misleading claims of being green. Upon seeing how profitable the green-looking programs were, they decided to do more to actually become green, in order to capitalize on the trend further. So we've got that to celebrate. But are companies today being rewarded for actions they aren't taking at the Earth's expense? You betchya.
As consumers, we can avoid greenwashing by becoming familiar with various certifications, and then shop accordingly. "All Natural" and other vague claims on food are usually examples of greenwashing. If the food actually meets any green standards, it should be certified organic, which is available internationally. Paper and wood should have the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, and you should only buy it if it does. The US Green Building Council has done wonders to standardize a certification process for eco-friendly construction, so you can look for proof of LEED certification from any company that is either remodeling or constructing, in order to tell whether or not they are actually walking the walk. Reeve Consulting from Canada has done a nice run down of other things consumers should think about and look for to avoid supporting greenwashers. They also point out the EcoLogo, which started in Canada and is now being used more widely in North America, and Fair Trade Certification, which is internationally recognized.
These are just a few examples of ways to weed out the greenwashers from the sincere green businesses. I'd like to note that sometimes even these certifications can be abused. If a company is environmentally harmful in most of its actions but prints its annual reports on FSC certified paper, they should know that this one good action is not enough. After all, you can't slap a "save the polar bears" bumper sticker on your SUV and hope that no one notices your carbon footprint.
If you have other tips or suggestions for folks on ways to avoid supporting greenwashers (or to at least be aware when you are supporting them), please feel free to comment.