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Don't like greenwashing? Ask for standards

Green marketing is on overdrive. But there is growing concern that inflated claims will turn off consumers.

Manufacturers are falling over themselves to call their products "green" these days yet consumers often have limited means to verify those claims. But before consumers get cynical about those claims, better standards and certifications are needed, according to one expert.

Surveys show that about 20 percent of the public is interested in green products, with a small percentage of "deep greens" who are very well educated on products and services.

But how can a consumer avoid getting duped or disillusioned? Follow the lead of other industries, where there is some oversight of food and car safety or the financial statements that companies put out, said Scot Case, a vice president of environmental marketing firm TerraChoice.

In other words, what green products need are standards and reputable certifications.

"One of the ways to avoid so-called greenwashing is to actually prove that you can meet the standard," Case said.

TerraChoice, which administers the EcoLogo program, covering about 7,000 products, did a survey late last year that found that "greenwashing," where companies make overinflated or false statements about products, was rampant. Out of more than 1,000 consumer products investigated, nearly all committed a greenwashing "sin."

The situation has become so serious that the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month started a series of hearings on green marketing.

The FTC chose to focus first on voluntary carbon offsets, where people purchase a certificate that represents an investment in reducing carbon emissions, such as a renewable-energy project.

But everything from televisions to home-cleaning products are calling themselves clean. Green alternatives was the theme of both the North American International Auto Show (aka the Detroit auto show) and the Consumer Electronics Show in the past few weeks.

The danger is that aggressive green marketing, combined with a proliferation of more specialized certificates, will lead to misinformation and unhappy consumers, said Case.

"This is what absolutely terrifies me," said Case. "It killed the movement in the 1980s. Green products were all the rage but the volume of greenwashing created so much cynicism that people walked away."

The other problem in the 1980s was that many environmental products were simple and not as good.

These days, consumers have many more choices to buy products that are as good, if not better, and priced the same.

The long arm of ISO.
How were standards set? The EcoLogo program starts with ISO, the international standards organization that sets blueprints for everything from battery sizes to digital documents. The ISO outlines how a standards should be set. For example, a printer's green certificate should take into account the amount of recycled material and hazardous chemicals used.

Then certification authorities write a standard with input from interested parties. Then they are published, Case explained.

In the case of EcoLogo, manufacturers apply to gain the certification and then independent auditors go out to test the products. The goal, Case said, is to set the standard so that only the top 20 percent of the market can get the certification, while recognizing the inevitable trade-offs that occur between say, energy efficiency, and recycled materials.

Depending on how you look at the numbers, the failure rate for gaining green bragging rights is quite high.

Ninety-seven percent of people who show initial interest in the EcoLogo program don't get to the point of applying for certification. About 83 percent who think they can meet the standard can prove it, said Case, who also mentioned the Green Seal certification.

"This is the Information Age. If I want to buy green product, I should be able to go online in the store with my phone to get details," he said. "That's the way to stop greenwashing. You provide the information."