The Nine Types of Greenwash

Sarah Gilberg | June 23, 2011 | Newsletter

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

Greenwash, the practice of deceptively or falsely portraying products as environmentally friendly, is pervasive in the building materials market.  Sometimes it slaps you in the face, but other times, it takes a more discerning eye to find it. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending an excellent webinar presented by BuildingGreen's Jennifer Atlee on Green Building Product Certifications.  Part of this presentation, which appears in BuildingGreen's detailed certifications report, presents an expert breakdown of the "Nine Types of Greenwash."  Here's a hint: it's not always in the label.

"The Nine Types of Greenwash," coauthored by Atlee and Tristan Roberts, highlights not only the clearer examples of vague or unsubstantiated labeling and green associations, but also some more nuanced distinctions. For example, it lists "Forgetting the Life Cycle aka The Red Herring" as the practice of touting one environmental benefit while ignoring other harmful impacts.  We see this effect often in products that may, for example, have high recycled content but release toxic chemicals in their manufacturer or use.  Greenwash can also be found beyond the level of the product itself, manifesting in the policies and standards that a company chooses to fight or support.  For example, a company may publicly endorse environmental measures while privately lobbying to resist or weaken them -- this type of greenwash is nicknamed "The Reluctant Enthusiast."

The full list and description of the "Nine Types of Greenwash" is now available on BuildingGreen.com, as is a recording of the full certifications webinar.

A big part of our work here at the Pharos Project is promoting transparency, and we work to provide a complete picture of products' environmental and health impacts so as to cut through the greenwash.  Unspecific or unproven claims are not rewarded in Pharos scores for a product, and progress in one impact area, while admirable, does not make up for poor performance in another.  This helps our subscribers to more carefully weigh the true impacts of products, and to pick out the true market leaders from the sea of green-marketed products.