Greenwashing: What it is and How to Separate Fact from Fiction

Learn how to distinguish which building supplies and household items are truly eco-friendly.

Silhouette of four homes on a green field with a winding path cutting through the field to one of the home.

It’s important to know what makes something “green.” To help ensure that building products and homes are truly eco-friendly, builders rely on ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council, the National Association of Homebuilders’ National Green Building Standard (NGBS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

“Every product on the market requires a certain amount of energy — nothing is truly ‘green,’ ” says Paul Knutcher, president of the Construction Spec Institute and a former member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

With that in mind, how can we sort products that are truly environmentally friendly from those that are greenwashing — making false claims to ride the green marketing bandwagon?

What is greenwashing?

“Greenwashing is the practice of providing false or misleading information about the environmental benefits of a product, service or company,” says Scot Case, director of market development at UL Environment, Inc., which works to advance global sustainability, environmental health and safety by supporting the growth and development of environmentally preferable products, services and organizations. “It has been an emerging problem since the 1970s, when consumers first began expressing interest in greener, more environmentally preferable products, but became a bigger issue around 2005 when ... large retailers began responding to growing consumer demand for greener products.”

Because large retailers started to devote shelf space to greener products, manufacturers began using green marketing strategies, which led to claims that were difficult to substantiate and many of which were false.

TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (part of the UL global network) has released several reports on the “Sins of Greenwashing.” The seven “sins” of green washing are as follows:

The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: A statement claiming that a product is green based on a very narrow environmental benefit, without calling attention to the fact that the product causes other environmental issues;

Sin of No Proof: Making a claim without providing information on how the claim was validated;

Sin of Vagueness: A poorly defined or extremely general claim that is easily misunderstood;

Sin of Worshipping False Labels: A scheme in which products claim they’ve received third-party endorsement when no such endorsement exists;

Sin of Irrelevance: An environmental claim that may be true, but is irrelevant for consumers seeking green products. For example, “CFC-free” is a common claim made by products, but is irrelevant since CFCs have been banned by law since 1987;

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: Almost an oxymoron, this claim may be true within the product category, but ignores the potentially negative environmental impacts of the category itself. A classic example is a fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle; and

Sin of Fibbing: A product that makes a false claim.

The two most common “sins” are the hidden trade-off and no proof. As such, it’s important to pay extra attention to products that make those claims, so you can avoid falling for greenwashing tactics.

Case says that not all greenwashing is deliberate, however. “I don’t believe most greenwashing is intentional. It is well-intentioned marketing professionals who don’t fully understand the science well enough to know which products are more environmentally beneficial or even what questions to ask.”

To fully understand a product’s “green-ness,” consider everything that goes into making it, including the energy used to extract, manufacture, refine and transport it. When accounting for this embodied energy, it becomes clear that very few products can be truly green.Because some marketers don’t have the proper knowledge, they may unknowingly exaggerate the environmental benefits of the product and commit one of the aforementioned sins — or even violate Federal Trade Commission Green Guides. Nonetheless, as a “green” consumer, it’s up to you to have the ability to double-check environmental claims and ensure products truly are green.

How Do You Measure “Green”?

To fully understand a product’s “green-ness,” you have to consider everything that goes into making it, including the energy used to extract, manufacture, refine and transport it. When accounting for this embodied energy, it becomes clear that very few products can be truly green.

In the case of the USGBC Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program, scientists conduct a lifecycle analysis on a product that takes into account the air pollution, water usage, soil and waste generation and other environmental impacts it causes.

As of Fall 2013, LEED v4 requires a lifecycle analysis for products and rewards builders that select manufactured goods with Environmental Product Declarations (EPD), another standardized way of measuring a product or system’s environmental impact. One of the pitfalls of green marketing ­— and a reason for so many false claims — is the variety of environmental claims made by products and the many different “green” benefits a product can claim to provide.

Greenwashing and Homebuilding

Seeking a competitive advantage, companies may exaggerate the environmental benefits of the products, services and companies. “Anywhere there is great demand for green products, consumers will find potential greenwashing,” Case says.

Since 1998, the USGBC’s LEED green building rating program and other similar programs have created a demand for green products in the homebuilding industry that manufacturers have rushed to fill. The National Association of Homebuilders has its own green building program called the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star program certifies homes.

While the LEED, NGBS and Energy Star ratings system have many similarities, they do have key differences on energy performance requirements. All program standards exist to give homeowners and homebuilders a reputable source for verification of environmental building claims. As established organizations with clear, transparent standards, LEED, NGBS and Energy Star help reduce greenwashing in the homebuilding industry.

Beyond building standards, third-party organizations have their own product standards for green certification, such as the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label and Green Label Plus programs and Energy Star’s program for household appliances and fixtures.

How to Avoid Greenwashing

Knowledge is your best defense against greenwashing. Familiarize yourself with common greenwashing tactics. Always look for third-party verification that an environmental claim is accurate. If a home product doesn’t provide any proof about its environmental qualities, that’s a red flag. “Know which labels claiming environmental benefits are legitimate,” says Knutcher.

Companies making legitimate environmental claims are taking steps toward combatting greenwashing. Companies may seek independent third-party testing to certify and validate any environmental claims they make. They also seek certification from environmental leadership standards such as LEED, Energy Star and UL Environment and UL-GREENGUARD.

The homebuilding industry is fighting greenwashing through education, self-regulation and third-party verification. “They know they have only one chance to get it right,” says Knutcher.

Though greenwashing does exist, consumers can take steps to avoid it. With a little bit of vigilance, you can ensure your home and the products you buy for it really do live up to their “green” environmental claims.

Seve Kale is an award-winning freelance writer for NewHomeSource. You can find her on Google+

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