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Claims Risk Turning Consumers a Jaded Shade of Green

Claims Risk Turning Consumers a Jaded Shade of Green

Last spring, the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice sent teams into six stores to record all of the environmental claims they observed. They subsequently tested 1,018 products that together bore 1,753 claims, against best practices for environmental claims recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

All but one of the products tested made claims that under scrutiny were deemed false or misleading.

From its findings, TerraChoice deduced the “six sins of greenwashing.” They include: the sin of the hidden trade-off (57%); the sin of no proof (26%); the sin of vagueness (11%); the sin of irrelevance (4%); the sin of fibbing (1%); and the sin of the lesser of two evils (1%).

CFC-free window cleaner (CFCs are banned); a detergent that claims to be packaged in “100% recycled paper” when in fact it's made of plastic; and organic cigarettes — all were found to be guilty of the three most seldom-practiced sins, respectively. Paper products that promote their recycled content without attention to impacts like air emissions; personal care items that claim not to have been tested on animals but offer no proof; and wax paper that purports to have “recycled content” without quantifying it are guilty of the most frequently committed sins.

This amounts to disturbing news for those who shell out premiums for eco-friendly products. But today's consumers aren't easily outwitted. Instead, they're increasingly seeking proof. Retailers can help them in their endeavor by sourcing items that tout specific messages and partake in eco-labeling certification programs such as EcoLogo or Green Seal, suggests TerraChoice.

Proactivity on grocers' part will not only limit consumer cynicism and allow them to fully exercise their green buying potential, it will also help foster green innovation by rewarding marketers who advertise legitimate claims.

Procter & Gamble seems to have the right idea. It's set the ambitious goal of reaching $20 billion in sales of sustainable products for which it has developed clearly defined standards.

Such items “will have experienced a meaningful reduction in their environmental footprint, compared to a similar product, without any trade-offs to the consumer,” said Len Sauers, vice president of sustainability at P&G. He added that 5% to 10% of consumers will accept an inconvenience such as higher cost if there is an earth-friendly trade-off, while the majority of shoppers (50% to 70%) will not.

P&G is covering all of its bases with Tide Coldwater detergent. It's designed to produce the same results of a hot-water wash, but in cold water, which is thought to provide better fabric care.

By switching to cold water, consumers can save $63 on their yearly utility bill.

But that's not all.

“The heating of water to do laundry drives P&G's energy footprint,” said Sauers. “If every U.S. household switched to cold water today, 34 million tons of CO2 emissions” would be spared.

Despite its compelling sustainability case, P&G has yet to market this product as an earth-friendly one.

“We knew the consumers would be more responsive to fabric care and savings benefits,” said Sauers.

In the meantime, happy hunting to shoppers seeking the single green item that is without greenwashing sin.