According to one set of high standards, only 2% of products claiming in some way to be "green" actually measure up. The rest -- a whopping 98% -- are making false claims that mislead consumers into thinking a product is sustainable.
Things are so bad out there that the report's author, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, had to add a seventh sin of greenwashing to the original six it developed for its first report in 2007.
Since then, the market for green products has exploded; the rate of green advertising has tripled from 2006 to 2009, according to one TerraChoice survey. Of 2,219 products surveyed in North America in 2009, 98% committed at least one "sin" that could mislead consumers. The most sinful categories of products: kids toys and baby products, cosmetics and cleaning products.
TerraChoice defines greenwashing as "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service." For consumers trying to make responsible decisions in the marketplace, it's a huge problem.
TerraChoice recognizes several labels -- including its own EcoLogo -- for being legitimate arbiters of a product's green credentials. The respectable labels are:
11 Eco Labels You Can Trust
For more thoughts, from a different and venerable institution, consult Consumer's Union, which publishes the great Greener Choices Eco-Label Center.
Beware terms like "eco-safe," "eco-secure," "eco-preferred," and "natural" which are meaningless.
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: If a product claims to be green in one sense, but ignores other significant impacts, the marketers sin.
According to TerraChoice: "Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, including energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and air pollution, may be equally or more significant."
2. Sin of No Proof: If you can't prove it with reputable third-party verification, you can't claim it, according to TerraChoice: "Common examples are facial or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence."
3. Sin of Vagueness: Terms such as "all-natural," "environmentally friendly" and other vague or unregulated descriptors can mislead consumers. TerraChoice points out: "Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. 'All natural' isn't necessarily 'green'."
4. The (new) Sin of Worshiping False Labels: Often, a product has an official-looking seal, but the seal is meaningless because it is dreamed up by the product marketers themselves, without any application of third-party standards.
5. Sin of Irrelevance: If a claim is true, but doesn't distinguish the product in any meaningful way, marketers have sinned.
According to TerraChoice: "'CFC-free' is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs (that's chlorofluorocarbons -- the chemical that depletes the ozone layer) are banned by law."
6. Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils: Even if a green marketing claim is true -- the cigarette is organic, or the SUV has a hybrid engine -- it fails this TerraChoice test if the claim fails to recognize the overall harm caused by the product.
The SUV may get better mileage than others in its class, but still achieve dismal fuel economy when compared to other vehicles; the cigarette, however organic, still causes lung cancer.
7. Sin of Fibbing: Simple. It's a lie. Some companies will go as far as claiming to be certified organic or Energy Star-certified, but cannot back up the certification.