As environmental sustainability shifts from voluntary to vital, many companies have applied a green sheen to their marketing and branding efforts to demonstrate they are adopting sustainable business practices. But how can we tell which companies are genuinely green and which ones have applied a generous coat of greenwash?
‘Greenwashing’ (a blend of ‘green’ and ‘whitewashing’) is the practice carried out by companies dishonestly claiming that their products, services or policies are environmentally friendly. The term is generally applied when more money or time is spent in promoting being green, rather than devoting the money and time to actual environmentally sound practices.
In December 2007, Canadian environmental marketing firm TerraChoice released a now-famous study, The Six Sins of Greenwashing, which found that more than 99 per cent of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed for the study were guilty of greenwashing – in fact, just one company was found not guilty of making a false or misleading green marketing claim. TerraChoice subsequently added a seventh sin to its list, and this has been included in order to outline the seven sins of greenwashing in the global green building industry.
Sin #1: The Hidden Trade-off
A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. For example, an energy saving device is not necessarily environmentally preferable simply because it claims to save a certain percentage of energy each year. Other important environmental factors involved in the manufacturing, installation or disposal of the product may generate greenhouse gas emissions or toxic substances.
We’ve all heard or read about the debate around energy-saving light bulbs; some of these products may indeed save significant energy over other bulbs, but the materials from which they’re made, or the processes involved in their production, may have a far larger environmental impact. The ‘good’ may be far outweighed by the ‘bad’, once you know more information. The issue of biofuels has also been an interesting one to watch over the past few years; there are advantages to be found in using less fossil fuels, but disadvantages may occur when land is changed from crop to fuel production.
Sin #2: No Proof
An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Making a claim that “the timber used in the product originates from sustainably managed forests”, while certification to a credible forest management certification scheme does not exist, is an example of this greenwashing sin. Forest certification schemes that are accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) International or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are recognised by the Green Building Council of Australia, and details are provided on the GBCA website at www.gbca.org.au. However, some product suppliers might advertise their environmental credentials, or even claim the ability to ‘gain Green Star points’ without being able to substantiate their claims with the correct documentation. To purge this sin, project teams should ask their supplier the following:
• Has your product received third-party certification, and if so from whom?
• Do you have proof of that certification which you can provide?
Additionally, project teams may wish to consider contractually requiring the supplier to provide the documentation as a condition of purchase.
Sin #3: Vagueness
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, mercury and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring - and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’, so people working on Green Star projects should research the claims made by suppliers and manufacturers when compiling their submissions. ‘Locally made’ is another claim which should be questioned, especially when referring to a product sold throughout Australia.
Sin #4: Irrelevance
An environmental claim that may be truthful but which is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally-preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ insulation is one example, as CFCs are now banned by international law. Another example might be the claim that a new building ‘smells’ green. While this might be a nice attribute, and one difficult to measure, it has no discernible environmental impact.
Sin #5: The Lesser of Two Evils
A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Some of the new HVAC systems being installed around the world may use significantly less energy than older models, which is a good outcome, but they may also rely on refrigerants with a global warming potential many times worse than that of carbon. It is important to remember the ‘bigger picture’ when considering issues such as energy or water efficiency; Green Star goes beyond ‘Energy’ and ‘Water’ categories to consider Emissions, Management, Indoor Environment Quality, Transport, Materials and Land Use & Ecology, with additional points available for Innovation, encouraging a more holistic approach and the ability to see such issues in context.
Sin # 6: Overselling
Sometimes, in their enthusiasm to promote their green credentials, projects will stretch the truth. Claiming a ‘first’ for Green Star is a regular occurrence, and should be encouraged; such green projects should be rewarded and celebrated. However the Green Star team receives requests from project teams asking to verify that they’ll be the “first 5 Star Green Star project in Sydney in a heritage building older than 100 years” or the “first 4 Star Green Star project in Victoria in a regional area without public transport” or “the first 4 Star Green Star project in Brisbane in a street with a 'z' in the name”. Green buildings should be first celebrated for their attributes and their valuable role in tackling Australia’s environmental impacts, not simply for their ‘sales position’ or marketing quirks.
Sin #7: The outright lie
Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common example is projects falsely claiming to be Green Star registered, Green Star certified or NABERS rated. Product manufacturers may also be guilty of the outright lie; on some occasions advertisements have carried the line ‘GBCA-approved’, which is both false and misleading. Any product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists is guilty of this sin. Similarly, there have been many examples of buildings advertising a rating which they have not achieved; in some cases this may be a result of miscommunication between project team and marketing department or advertising agency, but in others it is quite simply a false claim made to impress the market.
So, what can you do about greenwashing? The Australian Trade Practices Act has been modified to include punishment of companies that provide misleading environmental claims. Any organisation found guilty of such conduct could face up $1.1 million in fines. In addition, the guilty party must pay for all expenses incurred while setting the record straight about their product or company’s actual environmental impact.
The GBCA has always been prepared to work with industry stakeholders to clarify their messages, check on facts or help reward and encourage sustainable building methods, approaches or products. It makes the whole process easier for us, for the consumer, and for you!
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.