In addition to certification programs and FTC regulation, the consumer has several online resources that can help with identifying genuinely green businesses and products and combating the problem of greenwashing.
Co-op America: Co-op America has a Responsible Shopper tool that enables the green consumer to look up businesses and get a brief background check on their environmental and social responsibility track record. For example, if you look up Target, you learn that although the company is a partner in the EPA Waste Wise program to reduce city waste, it has been the subject of many sweatshop sourcing allegations, was fined by the EPA for failing to disclose percentages of pesticides in products, and was given an “F” rating by the NAACP for lack of commitment to people of color. The Responsible Shopper also gives you a “Go Green” option, which offers suggestions about greener alternatives to the store you originally selected.
Consumer Reports: This familiar third-party resource for helping consumers compare and evaluate products now has a Greener Choices page. While it is still fairly new with far fewer products to compare than under the main site, as this resource is expanded, its independent third-party analysis of green products is likely to become a very useful resource. Moreover, they have recently added an eco-label center where you can do a search on eco-labels to find information about what particular labels mean, whether they are subject to conflict of interest problems, and whether broad industry and public input was used to establish their standards.
Environmental Working Group: The EWG is a non-profit environmental research organization that provides a database of extensive information on toxics, pesticides, and pollutants. It includes a Skin Deep page that provides a database of cosmetic companies and products with information on the chemicals included in particular products as well as a hazards rating and explanation of associated health risks. Here you will find many instances of greenwashing through the misleading use of the term “natural.” For example, the site explains that “Crème of Nature Permanent Hair Coloring” contains a number of hazardous chemicals and receives a score of 10 on a 1-10 hazardous scale (with 10 being the most hazardous). Ingredients listed are linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and a host of other problems.
Enviromedia Greenwashing Index: Enviromedia Greenwashing Index enables consumers to post ads that exemplify greenwashing. Then others can read the ads, make comments, and rate them according to the severity of greenwashing they think the ads illustrate. The site enlists consumers themselves in the effort to raise awareness about deceptive green advertising.
WeBuyItGreen Forums: WeBuyItGreen promotes legitimate green products and businesses by allowing merchants to list their goods and services free of charge on advertising forums, where consumers can post questions and feedback directly beneath the ads. Consider an analogy from politics. An ordinary advertisement is similar to a political photo op or sound bite. The business or politician is fully in control of the impression or image that is created. However, when ads are placed on a forum, this is similar to a political press conference. It is more difficult to project deceptive images or misleading impressions when people are allowed to respectfully ask for further information to clarify or substantiate claims.
Blog and News Sources: There are a large number of additional resources that provide information for the green consumer through blogs, research, and news information. Greenpeace, Treehugger, and Grist are three examples. Other examples include websites that offer products for sale that are scrutinized and reviewed for standards such as: eco-friendly or non-toxic ingredients, effectiveness as tested by independent users, eco-conscious manufacturing standards, thoughtful and recyclable packaging, etc. One such website is GreenCupboards.
This article was originally entitled Greenwashing: Consumer Resources for Buying Green Products and is reprinted here by permission of the author.