Be a skeptic when it comes to environmentally-friendly products. Now that green living is going mainstream, more businesses are masquerading themselves as environmentalists in order to bring in big profits. These businesses lack a genuine commitment towards green living. For them, green living is just another rising fad they can exploit. Greenwashing is one name for a new form of marketing designed to deceive consumers into wasting money on products that sound environmentally-friendly. If you don’t want to get scammed, you need to educate yourself as a consumer.
I’ve encountered two forms of greenwashing. In the first category, a company blatantly lies about its environmental practices. For example, some vegetables sold in Walmart were labeled organic though in fact they were sprayed with pesticides (1). The second type of greenwashing occurs when a company actually does make some greener changes. The changes, however, are so minor so as to be inconsequential. Overall, the product is still extremely bad for the environment, but its advertising is not technically false.
Advertising for bottled water is a good example of the second form of deceptive advertising. Before we look at the advertising campaigns, let’s consider 4 reasons why bottled water is bad for the environment:
- Bottled water is stored in plastic, which requires oil and energy to produce.
- If the water bottle is not recycled, it will end up in a landfill.
- Recycling a water bottle still wastes energy.
- Bottled water must be hauled over long distances as freight, which wastes fuel.
Most of the problems created by bottled water stem from the fact that the water bottle is designed to be disposable. But the good news is that this inherent design flaw already has a simple, inexpensive solution: if you filter your own tap water from home and carry it in a reusable mug, you avoid the environmental problems associated with bottled water.
Some bottled water companies are trying to fix their negative image by using less plastic per bottle. Arrowhead, for example, has introduced the Eco-Shape Bottle as part of a green marketing campaign (2). Improved water bottles definitely helps reduce environmental impact, but no matter how you design a disposable plastic product, it’s still inherently wasteful. Reducing plastic doesn’t completely solve any of the four problems above; it only reduces impact instead of eliminating it altogether.
Consumers are now constantly being bombarded by wasteful products that have been given a green makeover. Instead of reusing cloth towels, we are buying disposable paper towels made with recycled paper. We are also buying fuel-efficient hybrid cars instead of walking or cycling. Even oil companies want to give their energy a green spin. Instead of telling us to reduce our wasteful energy consumption, they sell us energy with reduced carbon emissions. This is the tactic that BP pursued prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (3).
So how can you avoid being tricked by the marketer’s wiles? Here are a few rules that can help:
- Don’t buy heavily advertised products
- Don’t buy anything disposable
- Don’t waste resources, no matter how “clean” those resources appear to be
- In general, stick with old-fashioned solutions
This guideline isn’t flawless, but it can help you avoid being tricked most of the time.
The worst part about marketing scams is that they are usually very expensive. With a little practice, you can skillfully dodge marketing hype to save that other important green in your life: money.
Are marketing scams stopping you from going green?
1 Organic food from China currently can’t be trusted: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_6357.cfm