Greenwashing Sinners and Winners: Who Decides?

The tables have turned. 

Over the last decade or so, the sustainability field has created more than 100 rankings, rating systems and indexes. Companies compete for number one, some are happy just to make a list, and those that come up short often have significant work ahead in managing internal and external expectations. 

Now, the rankings, rating systems and indexes have some explaining to do, and they’re not necessarily ready for the scrutiny that they are so good at dishing out. 

As I said in my October 18 blog post, "Sustainability Ratings: A New System Every 42 Days,” many of the systems lack the very global acceptance, consistency and transparency that they aim to measure. The latest person to weigh in on this subject is Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz, who spoke out this week about TerraChoice’s new “The Sins of Greenwashing” report. “The report may be as much of a greenwash as the products and companies it is criticizing,” he wrote for 

TerraChoice, a North American environmental marketing firm, uses a seven-part screen – the “seven sins of greenwashing” – to judge companies’ product claims, and found that 95 percent the products failed one or more of the tests and was, therefore, labeled a “sinner.” The report, which was also issued in 2007 and 2009, is much anticipated and influential with marketers and product managers. 

The problem, says Makower, is that the report itself commits at least three of the same sins:

  • The Sin of No Proof for failing to provide independent, third-party validation of its findings
  • The Sin of Vagueness for the use of unclear or vague terminology, including the definition of grenwashing
  • The Sin of Irrelevance for labeling companies as greenwashers if their claims are factually correct but insufficiently substantiated

You also can’t help but notice that the report and the portal dedicated to the report are highly stylized with dramatic headlines, large numbers, compelling photography, and even a comic book theme. Use of the highly charged “sin” throughout the materials also adds to the hype. In other words, it’s slick marketing. 

If you believe this study, almost every company that markets sustainable products is a “sinner.” I, for one, would not expect services organizations such as consulting firms and rankings companies to fare any differently. So TerraChoice is probably just like the rest of us – part of the problem and part of the solution, and trying to get better every day. That sounds more like a winner than a sinner.

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