Greenwashing Sins, Part I: Hidden Trade-Offs

Demand for environmentally-desirable goods and services is at an all-time high. In keeping with this, more and more businesses and products are going green. Between 2006 and 2008, the total volume of green-themed advertising nearly tripled, and between 2007 and 2008, the amount of products on store shelves claiming to be green nearly doubled.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When statistics are compiled from 2008 forward, it’s reasonable to expect to see green marketing to have increased by a whole order of magnitude.

In general, this trend is a good thing. It reflects increased awareness and motivation on the part of consumers to make responsible choices, and on the part of businesses to serve consumers’ demand and to do the right thing. However, this green revolution has a darker side. Some goods and services are green in name only. This phenomenon is called greenwashing.

Today we continue our multi-part series on this topic by discussing the first “sin” of greenwashing, as dubbed by TerraChoice in its ground-breaking report on the subject.

Sin #1 : The Hidden Trade-Off

This sin is all about misdirection: emphasize the good and hide the bad. Consumers are exposed to a green marketing claim that focuses on a very carefully set of positive attributes, while remaining silent on the downsides that, if known, would make the eco-friendliness of the product questionable. Imagine a 100% recycled cardboard. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But suppose you learned that it is manufactured by a process that produces an excessive amount of greenhouse gases? Not so great anymore, is it? An eco-friendly bamboo fabric is appealing, but it loses its luster if its made with toxic chemicals that cause a disposal problem. According to the TerraChoice study, 57% of green marketing claims commit this sin.

Government is taking an increasingly active role in policing green marketing claims. But consumers can also help protect themselves by thinking critically as they review green labeling and paying attention as much to the label’s silence on an issue as to the features it touts. Also, consumers should rely on reputable certification marks to help guide them in avoiding hidden trade-offs.



  1. Robbin Pantojz Said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    This is a good post. We’re always looking for great resources to share with clients and the construction community, and your piece is absolutely worth sharing!

  2. Fredrick Speilman Said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    This is a fantastic article. I’m always looking for smart resources to show clients and colleagues, and your piece is certainly worth sharing!

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