Green Printing

Deadly Print Advertising No-No: Greenwashing

How consumers – and advertisers – can protect themselves.

TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, has received a lot of attention for the work they've done defining that PR poison known as 'greenwashing.' Greenwashing is basically advertising that misleads consumers into thinking that a business is environmentally friendly when it is not.

Because the print industry is the bearer of a heavy environmental burden, and because we are closely tied with the world of advertising, greenwashing is a big deal to us.

TerraChoice put together a list called “The Six Sins of Greenwashing,” which help to define exactly what that sinister ad technique is. I think they're so worth knowing that I've compiled them here:

“Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off” – Touting the eco-benefits of one aspect of a business to draw attention away or cover-up environmental crimes being committed in other areas.

This one really got my attention because the example given is that of paper, and how sustainable tree farms are promoted as the solution to all paper problems, while issues like milling and transportation are ignored.

That's exactly what I'm always talking about on this blog! It's not just about recycled paper. It's about working with FSC-certified mills, and buying locally to cut down on the environmental cost of shipping! If you're going to run a green business, no aspect can be ignored…

“Sin of No Proof” – This happens in every aspect of advertising, not just green advertising. A product makes claims to be super 'eco-friendly,' but where's the proof? Unless you're seeing some hard evidence to back up those claims, don't believe them!

“Sin of Vagueness” – There's a whole language to environmental stewardship that gets thrown around a lot in advertising, but always make sure a product or business is clear about what they mean when they use words like “green” or “eco-friendly.”

Many of these terms are at risk of losing all meaning in the rush to promote an pseudo-environmentally-concerned philosophy.

“Sin of Irrelevance” – Advertising that makes claims irrelevant to the product being advertised. You say these socks are chemical-free, but did my old socks have chemicals in them? You say this cleaning product is acid-free, but was acid ever the issue?

Good advertising focuses on zeroing in on what's really at stake – this makes for both a good ad and a happy customer.

“Sin of Fibbing” – It's true, some ad campaigns will straight-up lie about the green benefits of their product. Words like 'certified,' 'approved,' and 'all-natural,' are used simply because advertisers are confident that no one will call their bluff.

“Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils” – This one, I can't entirely agree with. TerraChoice argues that some products/services will never be green, so a claim made by one business that it is greener than its competitor is irrelevant.

Being from an industry that struggles with this issue every day, I have to say that we try our butts off to make the most environmentally responsible and sustainable choices for our customers and for our employees. I could never advocate a 'can't-win-don't-try' attitude.


Personally, I'd like to tag a seventh sin of greenwashing on to this list:

Sin of Misleading Design – By using earthy colors, fonts, and themes in a packaging design or ad campaign, businesses can imply, without saying a word, that their product is eco-friendly. This is a sneaky form of greenwashing that consumers should be on the lookout for.

But make no mistake. This list doesn't just protect consumers. Businesses and advertisers should also look to this list to see what consumers have their eyes peeled for.

Sometimes, a business may not be guilty of greenwashing so much as being overenthusiastic or unmindful about their product claims. Take care to be aware of how the modern, savvy consumer is thinking to avoid being accused of this bad practice.

Is there another 'greenwashing' pratice that you'd like to see disappear? Tell us about it!

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