Kendall-Jackson Blog > Sustainability > Are You Being Greenwashed?

Are You Being Greenwashed?

Eco Shopping

Have you ever felt like you’re not getting the whole story when you’re standing in the grocery store trying to choose between environmentally friendly products? Chances are you were the victim of greenwashing. Many people understand greenwashing to be marketing used to create the misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly.

A company called TerraChoice Environmental Marketing has taken it one step further and defined the Seven Sins of Greenwashing. It’s a fun way to help consumers understand how to decipher the information we’re getting from products at the grocery store shelf. TerraChoice does independent product testing and certification in association with Underwriters Laboratories – the guys who test electrical cords to make sure they’re safe to put the UL sticker on it.

Additionally, TerraChoice examines products and ensures they meet the environmental requirements for certification. They’ve also done some great research on marketing trends which helps to explain why our heads spin when trying to decipher product claims.

Since 2008, TerraChoice has been surveying retail stores to find products that make green claims and investigate the validity of the claims. Last year they investigated 5,296 products across a variety of categories including baby toys, cleaning products and even DIY building materials. Here are a couple of highlights of what they found:

  • 73% increase in products making eco claims (2009-2010)
  • 20% of products have legitimate eco-labeling (3rd-party certification on package)
  • 31% of products have false eco-labeling (bogus logo giving impression of 3rd-party certification)

It turns out very few products actually make false claims — like claiming to be Energy Star when you’re not. The most common Greenwashing Sins are being vague or not providing any proof of claims, or, as TerraChoice puts it:

Sin of No Proof: An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence.

Sin of Vagueness: A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’.

This research has been helpful to me in investigating and making buying decisions; it can be hard to navigate all the choices we face at the grocery store shelf. I don’t think having to evaluate the legitimacy of eco-claims should be difficult at home or at work. That’s why the sustainability platform at Kendall-Jackson is based around 3rd-party, independently audited certifications. So far we’ve got a few under our belt; we’re working on several more so you never need to question if we’re the real-deal or not.

Below are some of our third party certifications and tell us your greenwashing stories.

CATEGORY: Sustainability

  • Justin Lee

    3rd party certifications are great, but it is still hard to know exactly what they mean. The USDA has been criticized for its Organic standards, with some arguing that while the use of chemicals is greatly limited, it does not necessarily require the holistic growing approach that some people think of when they hear the word “organic”. Part of this probably stems from the fact that there is no clear, widespread definition for terms like organic, green, all natural etc. All of this is so new though, it should get easier as time goes on!

    • Robert

      You’re right Justin – 3rd-party certifications do provide a level of confidence in companies and products, but to fully understand them can require some participation by consumers.

      It’s hard to give all the information people want right there at the grocery store shelf and there are different criteria for each certification which you usually can check out online. We talked about a few of the differences in a past blog post http://blog.kj.com/biodynamics-pointcounterpoint/

      “Natural” is a really interesting term. Consumer Reports points out that some really funky stuff can be labeled “Natural” like red dye extracted from pregnant scale insects and citric acid made from fungus fermentation. Check it out here: http://blogs.consumerreports.org/health/2008/04/natural-doesnt.html

      We’ll be taking a deeper dive into explaining certifications and how they play into our sustainability program in a post to come soon.

  • Sarah Egerman

    I think it is definitely important to do a bit of research on products that claim to be ‘sustainable,’ and I am always a bit suspicious until I have done my own research. I recently had a conversation with a friend who was completely sold on SFI products, arguing that they were the same as FSC merely because the vendor they were buying the product from sang its praise and promoted the product to be sustainable. They also figured that since the industry had embraced the label, that it must be trustworthy. The truth is though that SFI wood isn’t actually 3rd party verified. It’s a label that the lumber industry uses to rate its own products! The standards for sustainable forestry are set by the lumber industry itself, which of course is problematic. After learning this it was not a hard choice to stick with FSC products, which are in fact 3rd party verified. It’s always best to do your homework!

    • Robert

      Hi Sarah,

      I think TerraChoice would put it like this, your friend was a victim of the “The Sin of Worshiping False Labels” (http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/findings/the-seven-sins/)

      I didn’t know the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s (SFI) program details, so I decided to dig around before commenting. I looked for almost an hour on their website and here’s what I found (or didn’t find):
      • Who were the external stakeholders involved in the development of the requirements? I didn’t see one group like NGOs, Government Agencies or academics listed. RED FLAG.
      • Independent third-party audits are required by some reputable firms like Price Waterhouse Coopers, but what are they auditing? If the standard is developed by only the forestry companies then it doesn’t matter who audits it.
      • The standard (http://www.sfiprogram.org/files/pdf/Section2_sfi_requirements_2010-2014.pdf) is publically available and I read it – it didn’t take long. It’s only 10 pages and has 20 “objectives.” Really, that’s it for the entire enterprise of forest management? Now, I’m no tree farmer, but these performance measures looked really soft and were filled with phrases like “where available” and “where feasible.”

      I spent five minutes on the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) website and found that they’ve got board members from NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Fund and engaged many stakeholders like the Rainforest Alliance in developing their standards. The standards are rigorous, require a great deal of evidence to back up performance and are independently audited. Check all the boxes!

      That’s the kind of certification we like. We’re certified under a few programs so far (http://blog.kj.com/what-sustainability-means-at-kendall-jackson/) like the Certified California Sustainable Winergrower (CCSW)program. CCSW was developed with over 65 stakeholders including 12 universities and over 20 NGOs and Govt. agencies like: National Fish & Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, the USDA and the EPA. They have 227 criteria that require varying levels of evidence.

      Achieving legitimate certifications takes a lot of work on a company’s behalf- both paperwork and in the field. We’re hoping this ensures you don’t have to work so hard to understand how we’re doing!

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