Unintentional Greenwashing


TerraChoice, a green marketing firm, has gotten a lot of press through their 6, now 7 Sins of Greenwashing report. They find that 98% of some 2000 products found on the shelves of big box stores have committed at least one of the 7 sins. Here are their categories. You can find descriptions of each at their website, above.

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-off
  • Sin of No Proof
  • Sin of Vagueness
  • Sin of Worshiping False Labels
  • Sin of Irrelevance
  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
  • Sin of Fibbing

Some or all of these might be attributable to intentional efforts to mislead or confuse buyers. Such behavior is virtually impossible to eliminate. There will always be free-riders who benefit by joining the pack of those with a genuine interest and honest effort to provide some public good. Fibbing--outright lying--is obviously an intention to mislead. So is irrelevance or the worshipping of false labels. The latter pretends to be "certified" by an authoritative agency. Vagueness--"A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer."--can be deliberate or the result of careless work by an uninformed supplier.

The latter cause of sin is as important as the intentional ones. Unintentional errors can and do come from the failure to understand the whole system that has produced and is producing the very problems the products claim to cure or alleviate. Irrelevance is "An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products." The growing number or ranking or ratings systems that are or will be used to order comparable products according to some measure of their potential impact on the environment or on sustainability are inevitably an incomplete indicator of the real consequences of their entire lifecycle use.

Sustainability is a property of the complex system of which our species is only a part. We have come to know a great deal about that system, but still understand little about it. All of these ranking systems come from our knowledge, but fail to represent the kind of understanding critical to guiding our actions in such a way as not to undermine the security and coherence of the system. The more we try to expand and rely on our knowledge, the farther from understanding we tend to go. Such is the fundamental context of our modern age where science rules the roost.

The fact poses a serious and daunting obstacle to any efforts toward attaining some form of sustainability. Consumption, itself, as a metaphor for all the material interactions between the economy and the earth system is suspect, and fails to align itself with what might be allowable or affordable without taking a chance that the system would jump into a new, unpredictable, and inhospitable regime. Ranking a product without asking questions about the place of that product in the overall system scheme unintentionally belongs to the sin of irrelevance and maybe a few of the others. I believe that this criticism applies even to the much-heralded Walmart Sustainability Index and have commented on this feature in several previous posts. We will not provide sufficient guidance to consumers until they are asked by the greeter that pass on entering any Walmart store, "Do you really need to buy anything today?" Or, perhaps, "Can you satisfy yourself today without some material object?"

(Cartoon courtesy of TerraChoice)