Will social networking stop greenwashers?

Web 2.0 tools can give street cred to products marketed as "green." But few digital resources are available for the palm of the hand.

Whether marking printers or produce, the increasing number of "green" claims on products can make it hard to separate sincere efforts at sustainability from marketing fluff.

Environmental watchdogs warn that corporate "greenwashing" will lead jaded consumers to abandon efforts to shop responsibly.

However, individuals can counteract the confusion and police the marketplace using online tools, according to Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com.

"In this age of the Web, the blogosphere, and social media, I don't think greenwashers are going to get very far or that fraudulent, hugely misleading companies are going to gain traction."

A wiki-style Greenwashing Index, run by an environmental marketing firm, invites people to upload suspicious-looking ads. Eco-themed groups have sprung up on MySpace and Facebook. A steady stream of new green blogs continues to join a chorus of thousands. Flock, known as the "Web 2.0 browser," will release an Earth Day edition pre-loaded with green media feeds.

Most notably, perhaps, is the emergence of dozens of "green" Web sites, many from tech industry veterans, that aim to put like-minded people on the same page. These social-networking efforts enable users to assess products personally, offering a balance to green labels and ad campaigns.

"The more you get into the business of green, the more you see there are no one-size-fits-all magic-bullet products," said Makower, who sees social media as helping to fill the gap left by the lack of green-business standards. "Can you have a green product from a company that's less than perfect and if so, how much less?"

One of the more popular Web sites inviting users to answer that question is Sustainlane, which has collected more than 20,000 user-generated listings of products and services since 2004.

"So many people have different values," said Christine Volden, a Sustainlane spokeswoman. "Someone may be looking for most inexpensive product and another may say, 'I'm not concerned about price; I want the best, safest product.' You can find a person most similar to yourself."

Ratings site Alonovo enables users to weigh ratings according to their personal values. Someone could, for instance, tailor a score to reflect a greater concern with the humane treatment of animals over the use of toxic chemicals.

The landscape of green networking and news Web sites, independent and "mainstream," is sure to shift as some flop and larger companies snap up others.

However, mobile tools that could help to inform a decision at a store are only beginning to bubble up. Along the lines of natural disaster alerts delivered via mobile phone, Twitter, or Facebook, several new tools harness text messaging to inform shoppers.

Amazon's TextBuyIt text-messaging system, unveiled last week, enables people to comparison shop while strolling store aisles.

Consumer advocacy group Healthy Toys offers a service whereby shoppers can send the name of a toy via SMS, then receive a reply noting the possible presence of toxic ingredients at a low, medium, or high level.

The nonprofit Blue Ocean's FishPhone service launched in the fall as a mobile Web page and service enabling users to SMS message the name of a fish and receive a note back about likely fishing practices and potential toxic chemicals in the species. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in September released a PDA-friendly version of its pocket guide to sustainably caught seafood.

But where can one find an all-in-one, Web-tied listing of a vast range of products for a mobile device?

"It has been very difficult to develop applications for handsets without the huge expense of porting across the four major carriers," said Dara O'Rourke, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "They have not made it simple, which is why most people focus on simple SMS."

O'Rourke and other researchers at Berkeley's Consumer Information Lab have experimented with a prototype mobile service that would enable shoppers to scan a bar code to pull up a menu of product details.

However, technical hurdles and the challenge of pooling data from myriad sources hamper the development of sophisticated mobile tools, O'Rourke said.

"There's a huge void in information that's becoming increasingly important to consumers. The day the iPhone was released, we knew everything about the feature set. Yet, probably 99 percent of people had no idea where it was manufactured, what the environmental impacts of the phone or battery would be, or what the impacts on workers were."

And user-generated content can flesh out a portrait of a product's value and sustainability, but it can't exist in a void, he added.

"There's a really important role for base data, not just people's opinions, but information based on science and an evaluation of the supply chain."

 

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