Consumers being ‘greenwashed'

WE SPEND more than $22 billion a year on sustainable and healthy products. These include greywater systems, organic food, green energy, natural cleaning products and ethical investments, according to a study by Melbourne-based consultant the Mobium Group.

But how do we know what we are getting is the green thing and not just a product pretending to have eco credentials?

The truth is "greenwash" - marketing spin designed to make you think you're buying a sustainable product - is everywhere, from the oil company that calls itself green-friendly to washing powder that says it is cares for the earth.

However, the place you're most likely to face it, most often, is when you do the weekly grocery shop.

In 2008, Choice magazine did a study of supermarket shelves that found they were flooded with greenwash.

In a survey of 185 non-food items, from detergents to tissues, it found only three of the 630 environmental claims made on packaging could be substantiated.

Myriad logos, many featuring leaf and tree designs and one showing hands cradling the Earth, appeared to be nothing more than inventions of manufacturers' marketing departments, said the consumer group.

Choice's Ingrid Just said the situation is no less confusing for shoppers.

From January 1, 2011, the rights of all consumers when buying goods and services had been guaranteed under one national regulation (the Australian Consumer Law) by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

But Ms Just said shoppers still needed to watch where their money was spent.

"Essentially all advertising and marketing claims need to be substantiated otherwise regulators step in," she said.

"Having said that, the marketing and promoting of products that are eco friendly is leant upon often because we are all becoming more eco aware and marketers recognise that."

Ms Just said it was important to be on the lookout for vague claims, such as natural or pure, and colours that just seemed "green", as well as pictures of native animals or flowers, with no back up claims.

"Claims on labels need to be truthful and substantiated," she said.

Manager of the Climate Change Program for the Australian Conservation Foundation Tony Mohr said it was "still pretty difficult" for consumers to pick out a genuine eco-friendly product.

"It is a case of buyer beware, using common sense, and really reading labels," he said.

Choice believed greenwash had serious consequences, because it could divert spending towards products with negligible or non-existent benefits.

Some labels that you can have confidence in include Choose Cruelty Free (logo shown above), Green Power Government Approved, Green Globe 21, Good Environmental Choice Australia, Forest Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council, Australian Certified Organic and NASAA Certified Organic.


Watch out for vague claims such as "environmentally", "natural", "pure", "renewable" and "recycled" if they don't have supporting information.

"Where possible, recycled paper is used" probably isn't worth the paper it's written on.

If a product says it reduces material waste, or water usage, it should say by how much.

"Biodegradable" can be misleading if the product takes a long time to break down or requires specific conditions to do so. Look for "readily biodegradeable".

The statement "safe for the environment" has many meanings depending on the audience and, without further explanation, risks being misleading.

Scientific language or technical jargon can confuse the average consumer.

The use of environmental images such as forests, the earth, or certain endangered animals, may make a sweeping claim of environmental benefit that may be misleading.

Using a symbol that is widely accepted as having a particular affiliation, when no such link exists, can be misleading. For example, a picture of a dolphin on a tuna product may be taken as a symbol that no dolphins have been harmed when this is not the case. The claim needs to be substantiated or qualified.

Energy efficiency claims should be quantified by comparison to existing benchmarks or rating systems.

A company advertising their energy as "green" or "renewable" should disclose the percentage of energy which is obtained from renewable sources if it is less than 100 per cent.

Source: CHOICE and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

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