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Living Green: Beware rampant ‘greenwashing’ of products

Despite being coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, and despite technology making information more accessible, the word “greenwashing” seems to be rarely used, despite its implications becoming more problematic.
Melissa Chaun
Melissa Chaun

Despite being coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, and despite technology making information more accessible, the word “greenwashing” seems to be rarely used, despite its implications becoming more problematic.

As defined by, greenwashing occurs when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that avoid or minimize environmental impact.

In a society that tends to embrace the latest fashions and fads, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that so many companies want to be seen as protecting the planet. In extreme cases, greenwashing encourages consumers to do the opposite of what’s good for the environment. At its most benign, a greenwashing company just makes eco-friendly claims to sell more product.

The reality is that the onus remains on the consumer to dig deep for the truth. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Do your homework, look at the bigger picture and evaluate for yourself whether the organization is practising true sustainability in its overall operations.

Some local and/or common examples of greenwashing:

• Port Metro Vancouver: Our port may be an early adopter for installing electric charging stations for cruise ships to use while in downtown Vancouver, claiming the “need to protect our environment…improv[e] air quality and protect human health” but its massive Deltaport terminal in Tsawwassen is happily exporting coal to China because Washington State refused to do so. (And by the way, there’s no such thing as “clean coal.”)

• Starbucks: The coffee giant continues to claim (even providing in-store “recycling bins”) that its single-use coffee cups are 100% recyclable. Those cups are not recyclable. They comprise two materials — cardboard lined with plastic polyethylene — that cannot be effectively separated and therefore recycled. Serving their customers with ceramic mugs should be paramount along with a larger discount for those who bring in a travel mug. Moreover, the company could be working to serve only organic, shade-grown, cooperatively farmed coffee, certified by a third party (not itself). And how about its refusal to shy away from non-organic factory-farmed milk? For a company of this scale and influence, the bar sits awfully low.

• BC Hydro: Although BC Hydro promotes energy conservation, every source of human-contrived energy has a footprint. The concrete used in dams produces vast amounts of greenhouse gases, both in its production and transport. Fish ladders are a negligible form of mitigation in the face of the all-transforming nature of damming mighty rivers into artificial reservoirs that permanently deforest and deplete fertile valley soils. Site C may well represent B.C.’s most expensive mistake yet, failing to acknowledge generations of destruction to other indigenous and non-indigenous communities across the nation in a time when progressive American states (Oregon and Washington) and countries (France and the U.K.) are decommissioning dams to bring back historic fisheries and restore watershed health.

• FortisBC: The company claims it’s “using B.C.’s natural gas to reduce global marine emissions” but a corporation that deals in liquefied natural gas and a province that engages in widespread fracking fail to account for the entire energy equation, including ecosystem and human health impacts. Fracking requires large amounts of toxic chemicals and freshwater initially to extract the shale gas, large amounts of fossil fuels to condense the gas into its liquefied state for transport and, then, large amounts of fossil fuels to reheat the liquid gas into “natural gas.” It therefore actually takes more energy to produce LNG than the product itself supplies.

• TD Canada Trust: Its logo may be green and its Friends of the Environment Foundation may claim thousands of volunteer hours have been dedicated towards green projects because “protecting and enhancing the environment is our commitment at TD,” but the bank is a huge financier for Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline expansion.
The challenges of climate change are too important for us to be distracted. By holding companies/organizations (and even individuals) to account, we can discourage greenwashing and get busy with real environmental change.

Melissa Chaun of Port Moody is an ecologist with a passion for all things sustainable. She is events co-ordinator with the Rivershed Society of BC and volunteers on various city committees. Her column runs monthly.



TerraChoice, a Canadian-based environmental marketing agency, developed a seven-part test to evaluate green claims. If any product, producer or company commits one of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing,” choose something else that doesn’t.

1. The Hidden Trade-off: A product claims to be “green” based on a narrow set of attributes but disregards other, more important environmental issues. A brand of toilet paper claims to save tons of waste per year but its production process continues to destroy virgin forests and use chlorine to bleach.

2. No Proof: An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by reliable third-party certification.

3. Vagueness: A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood. Beware of labels that boast their products are “all-natural.” Don’t take risks; choose simple natural materials to put in your home and on your body. Choose products made with simple natural materials like wood, wool and hemp that take less energy and resources to manufacture than their synthetic counterparts.

4. Worshiping False Labels: A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists. Avoid picking up the first product that appears to have a “green” label (a green leaf on the detergent, for example) and make sure the certification actually means something. Green Seal, Energy Star, EcoLogo, USDA Organic and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) are reputable labels.

5. Irrelevance: An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful when seeking environmentally preferable products. “CFC-free” is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

6. Lesser of Two Evils: A claim that may be true within the product category but that risks distracting from the bigger picture. Organic cigarettes could be an example, as might a “fuel-efficient” SUV.

7. Fibbing: Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples are products falsely claiming to be Energy Star- or Fair Trade-certified or -registered.