Greenwashing: acting clean, playing dirty

This week, a group of students at Florida State University released the results of a survey that explored the success of “greenwashing”, the deceptive practice by corporations of marketing their products as “environmentally friendly”, “all-natural”, or “green” when they may not be living up to the claims.

The survey presented respondents with three choices between pairs of products, one of which was the environmentally “better” choice. As “better” is subjective, especially in the case of environmental friendliness, the team utilized the extensive database of cleaning products compiled and rated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization that specializes in environmental advocacy, especially in the issues of consumer products and toxicology.

In each pairing, there was one product with an “A” ranking (the highest rank EWG affords to products) and one with a ranking of “C” or below. Respondents were then asked to choose, with no information but what was on the package, which product they felt was more environmentally friendly. The results were surprising.

Biokleen_Dish-Liquid_Hand-Moisturizing_IL0A2616dishwashing-liquid_Water-LilyThe first choice pitted Biokleen(R) dish liquid (ranked A by EWG) against Clorox(R) GreenWorks(R) “Naturally-derived” dish liquid (ranked F by EWG). Both products used the word “natural” on their labels; the goal here was to isolate the effects of the word “green” on consumer confidence in a product: did a product with the word “green” on the label stand a better chance?

The answer, surprisingly, was no. Of those surveyed, 67% identified Biokleen as the superior environmental product. The explanations yielded some helpful insight into their choices. Many of those who chose Biokleen cited either the lack of “flashy advertising” or the lack of affiliation with a large company such as Clorox as the reason for their choice. Among those who pointed to Green Works as the environmental choice, however, the fact that it was called “green” was a common rationale for the choice.


GreenShield-Organic-All-Purpose-Cleaner-Degreaser-32floz-FreshScentmediumThe second choice was between Green Shield(R) Organic Cleaner-Degreaser (ranked A by EWG) and GrabGreen(R) Power Degreaser (ranked D+ by EWG). Here, consumers were misled by their distrust of “flashy packaging”: though Green Shield used very shiny, hard-to-overlook colors and GrabGreen used a more subtle palette, Green Shield was the more environmentally friendly choice. 60% of respondents favored GrabGreen over Green Shield.

Again, the respondents’ rationale for their choice was instructive: many of those who were fooled by GrabGreen were lured by the lack of green claims, rather than any overt effort to market itself as environmentally friendly, and found Green Shield’s imagery and wording seemed to be hiding something. Many also chose GrabGreen because it was fragrance free. However, perhaps the most interesting pattern was that a majority of the respondents who chose Green Shield did so because of the “USDA Organic” label on the package. This is promising, as the USDA organic certification actually has requirements, as opposed to “natural” or “cage-free” which have no associated legal requirements (yet).


medium (1)The final charm-and-hammer-fridge-n-freezer-baking-soda-14-oz_4144746oice sought to determine whether a product with no green claims or imagery whatsoever on the box could win the day over one using the tactics, if it was truly the better choice. Such a product was difficult to find, as most products that are environmentally friendly do attempt to capitalize on that fact. The eventual pick was Arm and Hammer (R) Baking Soda, put up against Air Wick (R) Air Freshener, which had a green label with flowers on it. Baking soda is entirely harmless to the environment, while an aerosol-based air freshener has a host of associated risks.

Again, the respondents rewarded the lack of claims and advertising, roundly identifying baking soda as the environmental choice (93% of respondents chose correctly). However, a large proportion of those who chose correctly did so because of having personally used baking soda, not because of any knowledge of its environmental impact. By contrast, all of those who chose incorrectly cited the green and floral imagery on the Air Wick package as the reason for their choice.

The survey revealed much about consumer preferences and the success of greenwashing: contrary to what one would expect, there is a drop-off in trust at a certain level of environmental marketing. Therefore, it is in green companies’ best interest to market their claims subtly, and to take part in certification efforts like USDA organic certification, Forest Stewardship Council certification for paper goods, etc. in order to get the most favorable consumer response to their environmental action.

The survey is not a tale of outright optimism: the traps of mistrust of advertising and trust of buzzwords like “green” which have no legal implications still push many consumers to make environmentally unfriendly choices with the best intentions. But until we are willing to increase the legal obligations of companies to back up their environmental claims with evidence, any package can be misleading. It is paramount, therefore, for conscientious consumers to read ingredient lists, and familiarize ourselves with the most common hazardous ingredients so that we do not fall victim to greenwashing.