Net Impact Soap Box

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Companies' "green" claims often misleading
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Are companies exploiting the "green" trend by touting supposed environmental benefits of products that aren't much greener than alternatives? Consumers can play a role in controling greenwashing and ensuring that sincere efforts to launch environmentally benefitical products and services aren't washed out in the greenwashing storm.

These days--and especially around Earth Day--companies want to be seen with an environmental halo. But experts say many are guilty of "greenwashing" -- claims that mislead consumers, by words or image, about the environmenal impact of their products. Consumers are catching on, however. And that could undermine the growing green movement in corporate America--and possibly invite government regulation. “The timeframe for companies to get away with greenwashing is shrinking because the consumers are getting…much more skeptical of these kinds of these green claims,” says Scot Case, vice president of US operations for TerraChoice, an independent environmental marketing.
One possible result, he says, is that the “green consumer movement is going to collapse because consumers will walk away from false claims.” That would hurt many mature consumer products, such personal care and home improvement supplies, where green products are the fastest growing segment.

Rampant corporate dissembling has already led government regulation in Britain and Australia where officials now impose heavy fines for false claims. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission has stepped up a review of its own environmental marketing standards and is currently holding public hearings.

Six Sins of Greenwashing
In a study of 1,018 products from six “category-leading big box stores,” TerraChoice found that all but one made claims that were either “demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences.” The firm, which has identified six broad categories of greenwashing sins, declines to name sinners --or the singular saint--preferring to allow for a “genuine misunderstanding” on appropriate standards.

There is, for instance, the "sin of irrelevance." Aerosol cans now commonly sport environment-friendly green dots because they have no ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. But only a minority explain, in small print, that CFCs were outlawed in 1978.

Another example: paper products are widely labeled "recyclable" though they may not have been. “Everyone has thrown their hat in the ring to be green, but now comes the time…for companies to not just say they are green, but to prove it,” says David Lockwood, director of research for Mintel, a market research firm.

The growth potential for the green market is huge because ”the great majority of respondents still believe their shopping decisions can make a difference in the world,” a recent Mintel survey noted.

Grassroots Internet Policing
But that requires confronting greenwashing. A growing array of vetting services can help. Consumer Reports launched its screening service on Earth Day in 2005, while a recent Nielsen report noted that blogosphere criticism of dubious corporate claims doubled between 2006 and 2007.

In January, the advertising faculty at the University of Oregon launched, an open forum for posting and commenting on company advertising.

"Dirty" industries like utilities and automobile companies are favorite targets for ridicule.
Among the most pilloried was a coal industry association ad, which used Kool & the Gang’s "Celebrate." Even those with an easier case to make, can overdo it. An ad by Toyota which makes the market-leading hybrid Prius - showed a car made of wood, which could later biodegrade, to burnish the 'greenness' of its vehicles.

These ads just don’t cut any more,” says Deborah Morrison, an advertising professor at Oregon University. “I see how my teenagers watch these ads – they are quick to call the B.S. – they are looking for authenticity.”

“The issue of climate change is too important to be screwing around,” adds Kevin Tuerff, president of EnviroMedia Social Marketing, an environmental marketing firm in Austin, Texas. “The changes that are coming…are going to have big impacts so it is in companies best interest to get their house in order when comes to sustainability, and then go out and tell their message to consumers.”

Possible Third-Party Solutions
But for all the skepticism there also still appears a fair amount of gullibility. Almost half of Americans erroneously believe products marketed as “environmentally friendly” actually have beneficial impacts, according to a survey conducted for Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship. Ninety percent say companies making environmental claims need to prove it. Close to 60% favor government enforcement but even more support self-policing by industry.

The most popular option is third party certification--the route many leading companies are taking, especially if they have environmental baggage. That may have been the thinking of Clorox, which launched of a line of natural cleaning products Monday.
Clorox won the endorsement of the venerable Sierra Club – which in exchange is getting an undosclosed percentage of sales

“It is literally unprecedented for us to put out logo on a product - we are a 116 years old - so that’s a significant change for us,” said David Willet, the Sierra Club’s national press secretary. The move led to a four-year suspension of the Florida chapter, which strongly protested the new alliance, because of Clorox’s past record.

Fortunately, most experts say, consumers don’t expect companies to turn a new green leaf overnight but say transparency becomes even more important. “If the consumer does not understand exactly what that product has done to improve its environmental performance, the green washing flags go off,” says Case. “People are recognizing every single purchase has hidden human and environmental impacts and as a result people are trying to buy a green version of just about everything.”

Read more!

Desalting seawater may hold promise

By Associated Press, April 24, 2008,1,5069749.story

There's probably a place for desalted seawater in meeting the nation's future water needs, but research is needed to reduce the costs and impact on the environment, the National Research Council says.In a report released Thursday, the NRC said that improving technology is making it more realistic to consider desalination of water.
Some 97% of the water on Earth -- seawater and brackish groundwater -- is too salty for drinking or irrigation."Uncertainties about desalination's environmental impacts are currently a significant barrier to its wider use, and research on these effects -- and ways to lessen them -- should be the top priority," said Amy K. Zander, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a professor at Clarkson University."Finding ways to lower costs should also be an objective. A coordinated research effort dedicated to these goals could make desalination a more practical option for some communities facing water shortages," Zander said in a statement.
There is currently no overall coordination of federal research on desalination, and the analysis recommended that the government work be coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Most desalination research has been funded by private business, the report notes.

Environmental concerns include threats to fish and other aquatic animals from water intakes, high energy use in the salt-removal process and disposal of the salty sludge left over from the process. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The National Research Council is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.

Read more!