December 12, 2012 — On a recent Sunday afternoon, Denise Culver stood motionless, hands on her hips, surveying the towering array of choices in the cleaning products aisle at her local Wal-Mart Supercenter in Broomfield, Colo.
A working mom with three boys, Culver wants to buy “Earth-friendly” products, as she puts it. Instead, she often goes home with the “old stuff that’s probably bad for you.” Like millions of other consumers, Culver isn’t sure if the products tagged as green really are.
And who could blame her?
On one end of the aisle, a Green Works dishwashing liquid sports both an EPA Design for the Environment seal and a Sierra Club logo. A few steps away, the Nature’s Source toilet bowl cleaner assures customers it’s adhering to the “Greenlist” process. And Palmolive’s Eco-plus dishwasher detergent claims it’s “better for lakes and streams.”
“I’ve tried this before,” says Culver, motioning toward the Scott Naturals toilet paper (“green done right”) on the other side of the aisle. “But it’s only 40 percent recycled, so I’m not sure if that’s good.”
Recycled. Organic. Natural. Biodegradable. Non-toxic … welcome to the murky and largely unregulated world of green marketing, in which manufacturers tag their products with a hodgepodge of highly-regarded terms.
According to Ecolabelling.org, there are nearly 90 different eco-labels in North America alone. They cover dozens of product categories and take wildly varying approaches to determining whether a product is environmentally worthy.
Standard-setting programs such as the Forest Stewardship Council, National Organic and Energy Star isolate a single component of a product’s environment impact. Others take a more ambitious, life-cycle approach, seeking to measure everything from the raw materials that go into a product and the energy used to ship it to the item’s eventual disposal.
While some labeling systems have rigorous, science-based standards that were developed in collaboration with reputable outside experts, others are not so picky.
“With some labels, they’re just saying, ‘Send me $100 and I’ll give you a sticker,’” says Scot Case, executive director of EcoLogo, a third-party certification system for sustainable products run by consulting firm TerraChoice. In 2008 and 2009, TerraChoice researchers surveyed more than 2,200 products in the United States and Canada and found that more than 98 percent were guilty of “greenwashing”—in the form of everything from vagueness and irrelevance to downright fabrication.
This messy label landscape has been called a “tower of ecobabble” and a source of “green fog,” generating a looming sense of disaster among many in the green marketing community. “All it takes is a few big scandals about something not being very green—after it was promoted as green—and consumers will stop trusting,” says Anastasia O’Rourke, co-founder of the research firm Big Room, Inc.
Already, the Federal Trade Commission has charged four textile manufacturers with falsely claiming that their rayon clothing and other textile products are “100 percent bamboo fiber,” with bamboo’s antimicrobial properties. And, this past summer, the agency went after manufacturers of “biodegradable” plates, wipes and dry towels, stating that most of these products end up in landfills where they do not biodegrade.
“This issue has to be resolved before consumers just give up,” says Case. “It could kill a big business opportunity.”
Fortunately, efforts toward a unified authority on what’s green, both for the consumer and industrial marketplaces, are now in progress. Such an über-label would be publicly available and developed in a transparent way.
A frontrunner of these efforts is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium, which has convened an impressive roster of more than a dozen Fortune 500 manufacturers, as well as various environmental groups and universities.
“Wal-Mart’s got the best chance of doing this because they’ve got the market power,” says Tim Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “If they don’t succeed, we’re set back another 10 years. If Wal-Mart doesn’t do it, no one will—the challenge being, can we live with Wal-Mart’s rules?”
Jay Golden, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and co-director of Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium, says the group is working on developing “a common language and a common set of rules” that companies can use for free. The resources will be available via Earthster and other open-source technology platforms to assess the environmental life-cycle impacts of their products. Rather than award labels or certifications, the consortium will let manufacturers share the results of their assessments to both retail customers and consumers as they see fit.