This article was originally written for eCo Times, the new cutting edge online magazine brought to you by eConscious Market.

Image By Elaine At GreenpeaceThe term “greenwash” is what you get when you combine the words “green” and “whitewash,” or when a company uses environmental trends to its benefit by lying to or misleading its customers. First coined in the mid-1980’s when hotels started claiming that by reusing towels you could save the environment, greenwashing has hit the mainstream. The practice has grown exponentially in popularity as more and more companies are jumping on the environmental bandwagon and bombarding consumers in every way possible with advertisements of their “green” practices. As a result, greenwashing has become a household phrase and has been making appearances all over the media, from local TV newscasts to the Today Show to the new segment on American Public Media’s Marketplace called The Greenwashing Brigade. It’s even caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission which is attempting to protect challenged consumers by updating its 1995 environmental advertising guidelines.

So what exactly is greenwashing and how can you prevent yourself from having it happen to you? Trust me, you’re not alone if you get duped. The power of advertising and multi-million dollar marketing budgets make companies’ green claims easy to believe. Just the other day, I found myself purchasing a shower curtain liner from Bed, Bath, and Beyond that I didn’t even need just because the packaging claimed the liner was eco-friendly and biodegradable. Turns out not a word of that was true – the liner is made from the same old vinyl as all of the others. The company flat-out lied in order to get my purchase!

Indeed, it’s easy for companies to look good and make you feel good just by using terminology such as “100% natural” or “certified organic.” It’s true that the ingredients of certain products may be natural, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy or eco-friendly when so many “natural” chemicals are toxic in nature. And “certified organic” doesn’t always mean that the product was actually certified and properly labeled by an organization such as the USDA. In fact, there is no certification standard for many of the products that claim to be certified.

Take Fiji water, for example, and their new Fiji Green campaign. While making promises to help save the rain forest, help the recycling effort, and reduce their carbon footprint, Fiji’s manufacturing process is an environmental debacle. This bottled water travels 5,820 miles per trip from Fiji to Seattle (the closest Fiji Water destination point in the US), uses 46 million gallons of fossil fuel and 1.3 billion gallons of water, and emits 216,000,000 lbs. of greenhouse gases in a single year. Not to mention that their PET plastic bottles leach Bisphenol A and have a recycle rate of only 12%. Regardless, Fiji enjoyed a 40% increase in sales last year from the Fiji Green campaign and expects to do so again in 2008.

Check out this ad for Shell petroleum that shows pretty little flowers spewing out of a factory rather than the true smog and pollutants. What exactly are they trying to say here-don’t put anything in the garbage ever again and magic flowers will spill from every smokestack?

Greenwashing is so prevalent these days that the environmental marketing company TerraChoice found in a recent study that 99% of the green labels they examined were false or misleading.

TerraChoice is best known for it’s report on the “Six Sins of Greenwashing” which helps consumers wade through the advertising and discover which green campaigns are actually legit.

Other than keeping these “six sins” in mind, what can a responsible consumer do in order to fend off greenwashing? The best advice is to read the label, do your research, fact check any claim that seems too good to be true, and contact the company with questions and comments. If there is enough consumer pressure, companies will make their marketing more truthful and hopefully we can see greenwashing become a thing of the past.

Do you want to join the fight against greenwashing? Take action!

  • Learn how to fight greenwashing from the experts at Greenpeace
  • Rate your favorite (and not-so-favorite) greenwashing examples at The Greenwashing Index
  • Check out the regular post Greenwash of the Week on the official blog of the Rainforest Action Network
  • Share your stories of companies who greenwash, and those that absolutely don’t, in the Comments section of this post