Pretty Little Industrial Liars, Pt. 1

Greenwash detector

Big Industry has committed some of the most atrocious crimes against the environment in Canada and around the world with little fear of reprisal. This is Part One of a two–part series highlighting some small and large-scale instances of industrial–environmental greenwashing and misdirection in an attempt to better hold conglomerates accountable to the Canadian public. Read Part 2 here.

Greenwashing the Canadian Consumer
The deplorable act of greenwashing – constructing the misleading perception that a company’s policies, practices, products, or services are environmentally responsible and sustainable, is becoming common practice amongst titans of industry in Canada.
It should come as little shock to acute Canadians that fossil fuels and the tar sands – more genially referred to as the “oil sands” by energy multinationals and the Harper Government, are being linguistically and rhetorically greenwashed – my colleague Jeff Gailus has an insightful three-part series exploring this very issue.
What may come as more of a shock to a consumer society such as ours attempting to shop its way out of an impending environmental disaster – polls have shown that at least 70 per cent of Canadian consumers say they are willing to spend up to 20 per cent more for environmentally preferable items – is the inordinate amount of greenwashing happening in the everyday marketplace.
According to a report by the environmental advocacy firm TerraChoice, 98% of the 2,219 primarily household cleaning and paper products examined in North America – all but 25 to be exact, were found to be guilty of at least one of “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing.” Sins that encompass a lack of proof, vagueness, irrelevance, fibbing, “hidden trade-offs,” “the lesser of two evils,” and “fake and false label certifications.”
In Canada, most transgressions fall into three categories: vague language, lack of proof, and “hidden trade-offs” – suggesting a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without paying attention to other important environmental issues – i.e. paper from a sustainably harvested forest can still contribute high levels of pollution during the production process.
Thus while elusive monikers such as “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” and “chemical-free” are increasingly slapped on everything in Canadian markets from shampoo bottles and bathroom cleaners to mainstream fashions and pet foods, it all equates to little more than what activist and author Adria Vasil calls “a tsunami of greenwash.”
The “Greenwash Guerillas” trying to wade through the tsunami. Image Credit: fotdmike/Flickr
This tsunami can be nearly impossible to navigate, as large multinationals think – rightly so much of the time, that consumers aren’t interested in reading too deeply into the environmental characteristics of what they purchase, shoppers just want the instant gratification that comes from buying “green,” “organic,” or “sustainable” products. If the products are actually any of those things seems to be a mute point.
The more the average shopper harbours these armchair ecological consumption habits, the more that companies are going to stretch and even falsify the “greener” qualities of their products – resulting in a marketplace that requires an exceedingly methodical and labour intensive effort on the part of the savvy consumer in order to distinguish between corporate greenwashing and legitimate environmentalism.
One such savvy consumer is the abovementioned Adria Vasil, who recently partnered with the CBC’s Marketplace to provide specific examples of household products sold in Canada found guilty of committing multiple greenwashing sins.
Some of the culpable products include: Dawn antibacterial dish soap – championed as a cleaner of animals post-oil spills, it contains Tricolsan, an agent that is toxic to aquatic life, T-fal Natura frying pans – claiming to be free of non-stick carcinogens that the company has been found to use in the manufacturing process, and Sunlight Green Clean laundry soap – declaring to be mainly plant based, a test of the product revealed 38 per cent petro-chemicals, which leave a major environmental footprint.
These examples – and the 7 others fingered in the exposé, represent only a drop in a greenwashed bucket overflowing with thousands of products on the shelf in Canada today. Honest, environmentally conscious goods are an exception to the rule.
However, not all of the blame for this wave of greenwashing relentlessly sweeping across the Canadian market can rest upon misleading corporations or apathetic consumers. Despite repeated pleas from scientists and advocacy groups, the Harper government has been hesitant to institute an exclusive regulating body that could serve as the federal greenwashing watchdog by verifying “green” product claims.
Instead, the verification of eco-friendly products are left to the Competition Bureau – a loosely regulated government institution with nefarious ties to Big Industry that has gone on record saying it will only act if an official complaint has been filed, the privately-run Canadian Standards Association – loyal to its industrial backers, and the corporations themselves – many of whom have introduced ambiguous and internal “Environmental Management Systems,” which, as is highlighted in the satirical clip below, have been repeatedly caught falsifying official-looking certifications ripe with green jargon such as “eco-preferred.”
Of course, there are some genuinely environmentally minded companies sprinkled amidst all the self-certifiers and eco-proliferators. The best way to find them is to look for products that have been endorsed by a third party group known for its strict natural regulations – some of the more established in Canada include: EcoCert, EcoLogo, Cosmos Organic, Certified Natural Products, or Natural Products Association.
What’s more, visitors to the Ecolabel Indextracking 436 ecolabels in 197 countries and 25 industry sectors, it is the largest global directory of green certifications – can rate, review, and discuss all the world’s independently certified labels across 10 classifications including: electronics, food, forest products, retail goods, and textiles.
At the end of the day, the best thing the consumer can do to push the market away from greenwashed products is to stop buying them. So familiarise yourself with harmful ingredients, look for independently verified certifications, cross-reference with the Ecolabel Index, but remember, greenwashing is only part of the deception.
Moving beyond the role of the individual consumer, Part Two of this series will cut through industrial rhetoric in order to address why we as an environmentally-conscientious citizenry need to push for more regulative policies directly addressing the largest and most under-regulated polluters of all – transnational resource extraction and manufacturing industries.
Continue to Part 2.
Image Credit: fodtmike/Flickr