The six sins of greenwashing

- March 28, 2008

"There is a lot of consumer confusion around green claims," says Melissa Peneycad, a consultant with TerraChoice Environmental Marketing.

Call it the little green lie. So many companies are stretching the eco-truth that it’s making difficult for consumers to sort out claims like “all-natural,” “environmentally friendly” and “nontoxic.”

So TerraChoice Environmental Marketing looked into the matter. It surveyed more than 1,000 common consumer products ranging from toothpaste to caulking to printers to shampoo, and investigated the claims on their labels.

The company’s findings are shocking: the claims on 99 per cent of the products turned out to be “greenwash.”

“There is a lot of consumer confusion around green claims, but there’s a lot of money to be made by claiming your products are green so that’s why companies do it,” says Melissa Peneycad, a consultant with the Ottawa-based company.


What: Ecoprise 2008, a sustainable business conference
When: Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29
Where: Hosted by the Faculty of Management’s Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship and Eco-Efficiency Centre at the Rowe Management Building
What: Sessions include: “Mission Zero,” “Keeping the Lights On – Clean Energy for the 21st Century,”  “Growing Smart – Growing Green”
and “Socially Responsible Investing.”
Melissa Peneycad from TerraChoice Environmental Marketing will talk about the “Six Sins of Greenwashing” during the lunchtime session on March 29.
For more info: e-mail: Scott Sheffield, the conference director of Ecoprise 2008, at

A graduate of York University’s Master in Environmental Studies program, she’s the keynote speaker at Ecoprise 2008, a Sustainable Business Conference hosted by The Faculty of Management’s Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship and Eco-Efficiency Centre. Ecoprise (along with EcoVenture, a national competition for students) will be held at Dalhousie’s Rowe Management Building on March 28 and 29. Conference workshops explore socially-responsible investing, green technologies, leading sustainable business practices and more. (See the conference website.)  

“It’s an issue for companies that are really making an effort to do the right thing. There really is a large amount of consumer confusion. And hard-core green consumers tend to be the most skeptical. They’re saying, ‘I don’t buy into this’ and they’ll look for some kind of third-party certification. But there is hope and we’re doing our best to educate consumers in this area.”

Following its study, TerraChoice declared the “Six Sins of Greenwashing, a light-hearted way of drawing attention to exaggerated or bogus claims. The environmental shortcomings were so prevalent that TerraChoice separated them into six categories, the “six sins.”

  1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: These are companies making one claim while ignoring other harmful environmental impacts, such as “energy-efficient” electronics that contain hazardous materials.
  2. Sin of No Proof: Companies make claims on their products, such as shampoos deemed “certified organic” but there’s no way of checking out the claim and no verifiable certification. 
  3. Sin of Vagueness: Products claiming to be 100 per cent natural when they may contain naturally occurring substances that are hazardous, such as arsenic and formaldehyde.
  4. Sin of Irrelevance: While CFCs have been banned in Canada for 20 years now, many products are still declared “CFC-free.”
  5. Sin of Fibbing: These are products which falsely claim to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard such as EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal.
  6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: Organic cigarettes? Fuel-efficient SUVs? Huh?

“Consumers want to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle,” says Ms. Peneycad. “It’s important to be able to buy green with confidence.”

Manufacturers and suppliers can request an assessment and EcoLogo certification in order to determine whether a product’s claims are valid or if they commit one of the Six Sins.

EcoLogo’s insignia lets consumers know that an independent, credible and expert third party has verified a product’s green qualifications.


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