How do I know a fabric is “green”?

13 07 2011

copyright Scott Adams, Inc. / Dist. by USF, Inc.

It’s been almost two years since we talked about certifications (click here to read our earlier post), so I think it’s time for a refresher, because, as one pundit said, “our product is green” is joining “the check’s in the mail”  as one of the most frequent fibs in our modern times.  According to TerraChoice, there were 73% more  “green” products on the market in 2010 than in 2009 – and over 95% of those claims are false or misleading.[1]  Greenwashing – the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly – is the order of the day.  One corporation after another has jumped on the “green-your-corporation-for-a-better-public-image” bandwagon,  doing things such as starting partnerships with legitimate green groups, which is good, while continuing business as usual, which is bad.   Manipulating public perception is the name of the game.   This is so ubiquitous that Steven Colbert, for one, can’t resist:  he says that they now have a “Green Colbert Report”  –  they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon.

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?  Doesn’t really hurt anybody does it?

Actually, it does hurt us all.  As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather puts it in a new report, greenwash is actually “an extremely serious matter…it is insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.” In other words, it’s very hard for customers to know what choices make a difference when some marketers are muddying the waters for all. When buyers throw up their hands in confusion, we all lose.[2]  And it results in consumer and regulator complacency – if one corporation in a particular industry gets away with greenwashing, then other corporations will follow suit, leading to an industry-wide illusion of sustainability, rather than sustainability itself.

This year, Cone Inc.’s Trend Tracker found that nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product if they feel misled by environmental claims – and more than a third will go so far as to boycott a company’s products.[3]

With textiles specifically, we see environmental claims that are just as outrageous as the new “Natural Energy Snack on the Go” from Del Monte – individually wrapped bananas. [4]

Packaged bananas from Del Monte

The problem is that the issues involved in evaluating a claim are often complex, and they vary greatly by product.   In addition, there is a raging debate about what constitutes green practices – for example, recycled polyester is considered a “green” choice in textiles,  yet what yardstick is being used to make that claim?  We have done numerous blog posts on why any kind of synthetic has a much greater environmental impact  than any naturally raised fiber (click here to read the first of these posts).  If we compare synthetics to organically raised fibers, do we also include the benefits of supporting organic agriculture, or is that a benefit that gets lost in the equation?

Even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for environmental claims, these guidelines are not law, and are only enforceable if a complaint is lodged to the FTC and there is enough evidence to get a court order forcing the company to remove the claim.  But what if people simply don’t have enough knowledge to lodge a complaint?

I’ve spent years reading about the issues involved in textile production (one of the most complex supply systems in all manufacturing) but don’t feel capable of evaluating other products.   That’s where transparency on the part of manufacturers comes in:  Consumers have to understand that there are no green products – every product uses resources and creates waste.  And there are tradeoffs.  But beyond that understanding, third party certifications give us all certain measurable standards by which we can compare products, and are a useful tool.

But even certifications need some kind of knowledge base on the part of the consumer in order to be valuable.  (What’s being measured?  Who’s doing the measuring? Which environmental claims are relevant, and what are subterfuge?)

Certifications  (not to be confused with labels and standards) fall into three categories:  first, second and third party certifications:

  1. In first party certifications, a person or an organization says it meets certain claims; there is not usually an independent test to verify those claims.  These are usually a fairly simple claim, such as that the product will last for at least a year.  An example of this type of certification is that of  Kravet’s “Kravet Green” collection,  because Kravet itself is telling us that their fabrics are green.   There is no mention of any other certification bodies corroborating their statements.
  2.  In second party certification, an association or group provides the assurance that a product meets certain criteria.  This type of certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest.   Under new FTC guidelines, companies that are members of the trade organization or group that certifies their product must disclose that relationship to the consumer.  An example of second party certification can be considered that of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program, which has developed a set of standards and which awards use of their logo if companies comply with these standards.
  3. Third party certifications are issued by independent testing companies based on impartial evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources with reference to a publicly available set of standards.  Third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve.  A third party certification is represented by the Global Organic Textile Standard,  which has a public set of standards and which is administered by independent testing labs around the world.  In other words, you can’t pay these labs to misrepresent their findings, since their business is testing and certification only (such as Peterson Control Union or Oeko Tex).

Like green claims, there is also an abundance of seals and labels that assure environmental worthiness, experts say.

“About once a week, I have a client that will bring up a new certification I’ve never even heard of and I’m in this industry,” said Kevin Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Washington-based company that helps businesses plan green marketing strategies. “It’s kind of a Wild West, anybody can claim themselves to be green.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the plethora of labels made it difficult for businesses and consumers to know which labels they should pay attention to. “There’s no way for the average consumer or even for a C.E.O. to know which ones to go for or what they should get,” he said. [5]

Okay, which certifications apply to textiles and what do they tell us?  Tune in next week.


[1] “The Sins of Greenwashing”, Terra Choice, October 26, 2010, http://blog.terrachoice.com/2010/11/08/the-2010-sins-of-greenwashing-study-is-here/

[2] Winston, Andrew, “Avoiding Greenwash and Its Dangers”, Harvard Business Review, April 15, 2010. http://blogs.hbr.org/winston/2010/04/avoiding-greenwash-and-its-dan.html

[4] According to James Harvey, Del Monte’s UK managing director, “Del Monte’s new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill. The packaging is also recyclable.”

[5] Vega, Tanzina, “Agency Seeks to Tighten Rules for ‘Green’ Labeling”, New York Times, October 6, 2010.





Greenwashing redux

6 04 2011

Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Wikipedia defines greenwashing as a term describing the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly. The term green sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

Just the fact that we’re exploring this concept means that there is a recognition that the planet is in trouble, and many of us have some kind of intention to do something about it, even though what we do might be very small.  Companies want to show consumers that their products are “green” so the consumers  can buy their stuff as usual while still feeling like they’re helping the Earth.  According to TerraChoice, there are 73% more products claiming green credentials on the market today than in 2009.   But  “green cons­umerism” is an oxymoron, like “organic cigarettes”.  Buying stuff is simply bad for the environment –  all this stuff has to be manufactured from other stuff we take from the Earth one way or another.  Manufacturing requires energy.  Shipping the products requires energy.

TreeHugger (and Planet Greener) Lloyd Alter said it best:  “We just use too much of everything – too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money…the key to sustainability is to simply use less.”

So the argument really begins and ends with us.  We – consumers – should really step up to the plate and make some sacrifices rather than shifting the burden entirely onto companies to produce green products so we can feel good about buying them.

On the other hand, it’s not reasonable to think that people will stop buying stuff, or that companies would not continue to make stuff.  So  as Jeff Hollander of Seventh Generation says, “We should absolutely not support green products from companies that use them to distract us from their larger negative environmental and social impacts. We need systemically green companies to address the challenges we face, not business-as-usual companies that hold up one green hand while hiding another toxic, CO2-emitting, waste-producing one behind their backs.”

But how do we know what is greenwash?

Following the Earth Summit in 1992, Greenpeace came up with criteria which it uses to define “greenwash”, defined as the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.   The following is from the Greenpeace web site:

While accepting that there will never be a perfect litmus test for “greenwash”, and in the hope of encouraging greater public debate on the issue, Greenpeace offers the following 4 Point “CARE” check list. “CARE” stands for Core business; Advertising record; Research & development funding; and Environmental lobbying. A corporation which fails on any of the four tests below is probably in the “greenwash” business.

1. Core Business

If a company’s core (or main) business is based primarily on an activity which has been identified as significantly contributing to environmental pollution or destruction, there is a strong presumption that any assertions that it supports environmentally sustainable development are greenwash.

For example, oil and coal companies, whose products have been determined by UN scientists to be the largest source of man-made greenhouse gases, are by definition engaged in an environmentally unsustainable business. Scientists tell us that each ton of coal or barrel of oil burned adds to the risk of dangerous climate change, which over 160 countries have pledged to prevent in an international treaty. In short, there is a fundamental contradiction between the environmental (and legal) requirement to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2), and the production and sale of increasing quantities of coal and oil, the main sources of CO2.

Similarly, forestry companies which log in ancient forests, the richest terrestrial reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet, make it almost impossible to implement the commitments made by 165 countries to protect species in 1992 international Convention of Biological Diversity. Currently, it is estimated that 50-100 species become extinct each day, and forest clearing is a major contributor. This is another example of how a core business can be in fundamental contradiction with a sustainable environment.

In some cases, companies with a highly destructive core business have launched or expanded initiatives for cleaner or less destructive processes and products. Oil companies moving into solar energy is an example. This trend is to be strongly encouraged. However, Greenpeace believes that such measures warrant the “greenwashing” tag unless the parent company publicly acknowledges the fundamental unsustainability of the core business, and makes a serious commitment to phasing out of those activities and towards the cleaner business within a near-term timeframe. (See also “Research and Development”, below).

2. Advertising Practice

Corporate advertising budgets can be huge and their effects on shaping consumer behaviour enormous. It is understood that at least ten corporations have annual advertising budgets of over US$ 1 billion each. Collectively, global advertising budgets run into many billions of dollars, significantly more than most governments and corporations spend on environmental improvement. This fact alone justifies continuous and detailed public scrutiny of the advertising practice and claims of industry.

With this power goes a responsibility that cannot be regulated alone by local advertising standards. Corporations must assume the responsibility for informing the public about the environmental impacts of buying and using their products. Many public opinion polls show that consumers would like to be given a wider choice in products, and are even prepared to pay more for “greener” products.

The “greenwash” tag applies to any corporations which use the media to make environmental claims about one or more of their cleaner products, while continuing “business as usual” practices which rely, for example, on large amounts of natural capital, are energy intensive or inefficient, or which involve production and release of toxic chemicals.

Use of the media by corporations for public debate about whether certain practices are more or less sustainable may represent a genuine attempt to inform and educate. However, where large advertising budgets and slick campaigns appear to justify maintenance of “business as usual” practices which have been widely questioned by environmental scientists, the “greenwash” tag might also be applicable. In other words – their green spin outweighs green R&D spending!

3. Research and Development (R&D)

Large corporations frequently have large funds set aside for R&D. These are used to identify and bring into production new products and manufacturing processes. Here, the “greenwash” test is to what extent these budgets are allocated to developing practices which are more sustainable, or are simply reinforcing old, unsustainable practices.

In view of the size and purpose of these funds, which can easily amount to many millions of dollars, and the fact that a high proportion of the world’s scientists now work for industry, there is a special opportunity for use of corporate R&D in the development of cleaner technologies.

For example, a paper manufacturing corporation which spends most or all of its R&D budget on developing a closed cycle production process which eliminates use of chlorine, minimises use of water and energy, and avoids use of old growth forest as feedstock is moving in the right direction.

By contrast, a coal power utility which spends its R&D on reducing pollutants such as sulphur, without addressing the fact that any combustion of coal creates harmful greenhouse gases and other pollutants, is not using its R&D for sustainable ends. In such a case, only a major commitment towards development of clean renewable energy forms would represent a real contribution towards a more sustainable planet.

4. Environmental Lobbying Record

Corporations which say one thing, and do another, do the entire business sector an injustice. For example, a corporation which presents itself as in favour of pollution reduction loses all credibility if, at the same time, it actively lobbies against measures which are designed to reduce pollution.

Politicians, journalists and NGOs have too often encountered examples of businesses claiming green credentials or aims, but which lobby (frequently through coalition or “front” groups) against increases in taxes or controls on polluting activities. Sometimes there have been threats or examples of closing plants and moving to countries with lower environmental standards. Such “double-speak” entitles any corporation caught in the act to the “greenwash” tag.

By contrast, a responsible corporation will use its name and experience to lobby in favour of policies and practices which reduce pollution. Greenpeace has applauded, and even worked with groups of businesses serious about developing better environmental standards, and urging their adoption by government or industry associations.