Sunday, August 3, 2008

What is Greenwashing?

At Blessed Earth, almost every day we talk to customers who have been misled to some extent by the advertising of traders who are cashing in on the trend towards organic products through “greenwashing”. Traders are popping up everywhere, especially on the internet, claiming to be selling organic products, aware that at this stage there is no regulatory body to prosecute them for false claims.

Greenwashing is the practice of trying to make a product, service, or enterprise appear more environmentally responsible than it really is. It derives from “whitewaswhing”, which is the practice of trying to make something appear to be purer than it really is.

The practice of greenwashing is usually intended to confer a commercial advantage by taking advantage of the growing public preference for environmentally responsible purchasing options.

There is an element of deception involved and that deception can be either blatant, or by failure to disclose, or by inference, or by inadequate checks on information contained in claims made.

  1. Blatant greenwashing would be a deliberately made false claim as to benefits conferred or organic status.
  2. Greenwashing by failure to disclose is where a piece of information that would, if made known, reduce the “green” appeal of the subject, is knowingly withheld.
  3. Greenwashing by inference takes advantage of public ignorance or misunderstanding and the association of ideas. An example of this would be the use of the word green in a product label, supported by advertising images of natural scenes such as a waterfall, even though the product could be toxic.
  4. Greenwashing by inadequate checking involves the making of a claim based on information that suits the purposes of the claimant, who does not take adequate steps to ensure that the information is correct. An example would be to market a product as “organic”, simply because the material from which it was made was claimed to be organic. Even if there were appropriately provided certification details for the material(s) used, the manufacturing process could have been toxic.
In the organic cotton industry, all the above forms of greenwashing can be employed by those who lack integrity or understanding.

It is said that the amount of organic cotton supposedly coming out of India far outweighs the amount of organic cotton actually being grown. It is common practice for vendors to call a batch of cotton “organic”, if minimal or no chemicals have been used, even if no certification has been obtained for the fibre. It’s also generally understood that certification can be “acquired”, even if not earned.

The lines are further blurred by the fact that even if a batch of cotton were certifiably organic, it could have been processed into fabric under conditions that did not satisfy the strict criteria.

There is also the practice commonly employed by some major retailers who, in the absence of binding regulations, are able to say their products are made from organic cotton, without providing any details of certification. So the consumer is expected to take their word for it, even though the product obviously contains, for example, Lycra.

Dyeing is another moot area, as there are relatively few facilities in the world that are able to dye fabrics to meet the criteria of organic certification. Dyes can be extremely toxic, perhaps even more so than the residual chemicals from cotton growing and fabric production.

This is especially true of products coming from China. Most if not all of the organic cotton clothing and bedding products being sold by Department stores in Australia come from China (some from India), a fact which they disguise as much as possible. Customers are invariably surprised to find that, for example, their “Koala Blue” sheets are made in China. Shame on you ‘Liv’…

For most consumers, the fact that that someone dared to make the claim of “organic” is made is enough. In fact, it is meaningless to read that a product is made from organic cotton, unless full certification details are provided and unless the operator providing those details has a good track record in testing the reliability of those details.

It is very rare for a product itself – and not just the fabric – to be certified organic. In order to obtain that, every step of the process from growing through manufacturing and even to retailing has to pass stringent tests.
As far as we know, Blessed Earth are the only Australian firm to meet those standards, with our Demeter certified products

Hemp is a fabric that has been expertly greenwashed, as most people have been led to focus on the fact that it grows in a manner that it is environmentally friendly. Few realise that hemp is naturally made into rope and that it requires a great deal of chemical softening to be suitable for clothing or bed-linen. All of the hemp coming into Australia comes from China – another greenwashed fact – and is dyed without consciousness about it’s toxicity.

Now that approval has been given to grow hemp in NSW, let’s hope we see on organic processing factory emerge for the fabrics that can be made from it. Then Blessed Earth will certainly support and promote them.

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