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Vol 38 Issue 23 • Nov 25, 08 - Winter 09
now in our 38th season

The Right Christmas Gift for the Planet

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

For much of this past year, gas prices have skyrocketed, encouraging the average citizen to strive for energy conservation while reducing their reliance on nonrenewable fuels.  At the same time, the public has started to respond favorably to ad campaigns emphasizing individual responsibility for shrinking our environmental footprint and protecting family health with less toxic products. Rushing in to fill the void is a tsunami of new and improved, often simply relabeled, “Green” products.  It seems that everything from bleach to your SUV can be green if marketed in the correct manner.  This desire to up-sell products and companies to green conscious consumers, often in a less than honest or transparent manner was first exposed in an 1986 essay by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in which he coined the word “greenwashing.”  The term “greenwashing” is a portmanteau (or blend of two words) of “green” and “whitewashing.”  Westerveld was commenting on local hotelier’s practice of placing placards in hotel rooms asking guests to reuse their towels as a way to reduce laundering and water use and protect the environment.  Although somewhat laudable, this effort was primarily designed to increase the hotels profit margin and reduce costs for the company.

“Greenwashing” originally referred to misleading environmental claims in advertising, but recently the term has been expanded to include everything from overzealous promotions at green events, to relabeling of products as “all natural” or “environmentally friendly” on shaky factual grounds.  And this trend is growing exponentially as going green has become big business—sales of organic products alone went from $10 billion in 2003 to more than $20 billion in 2007—companies appear eager to associate themselves with the environment, deservedly or not.

Environmentalists often use greenwashing to describe the actions of energy companies, which are traditionally the largest polluters. British Petroleum’s use of a green sunflower like pattern in their ads touting “green solutions” is a perfect example of rebranding a product with an innocuous green type symbol to convey greater good than may actually be occurring. Another commonly cited example of greenwashing is euphemistic language such as the Bush Administration’s ”Clear Skies Initiative,” which actually weakened air pollution laws. Some environmentalists tend to see only the negative connotations of a previously pollutant-happy company’s attempt to “go green” such as the Ford Motor Company’s “green” factory at the River Rouge complex (Dearborn, Michigan) or their production of Escape Hybrids as being inadequate or ineffectual versus their overall low fleet mileage average.  I, being a glass-half-full kind of person, tend to appreciate even small steps as, at least, being steps in the right directions. Where my blood (and chemistry knowledge) comes to a boil is when I see my old friend chlorine bleach labeled by Clorox as a “green cleaner” (same bleach, same effects as before, nice new bottle).  Even more audacious are eggs labeled as “low carb” or other items as being “all natural.” Arsenic, mercury, and nitroglycerin are all natural too, but most people try to avoid ingesting or handling them.

Environmental advocate Terrachoice recently published a list of the “top Six Sins in Greenwashing,” which you can find by going to: They developed the list researching a myriad of products to determine which ones use one or more of these techniques to intentionally mislead customers. In their research they found out that 99% of 1018 common consumer products studied were guilty of greenwashing!

These sins range from rather minor “errors of omission” to more insidious outright marketing lies. The first sin and the most common one, accounting for 57% of all greenwash incidents uncovered by Terrachoice is the “Sin of the Hidden Trade Off,” or an environmental claim that is true while ignoring potentially more important non-green aspects of the product.  All products and actions have multiple decision points that can have more or less of an impact on the environment and it can be tough to choose.  What you don’t want is something that appears to be earth friendly, but instead creates a bigger or still substantial problem. 

In a nutshell, you need to consider: transport costs, new materials used to make a product, energy that went into the product, along with toxic forms of the product degradation. For instance, fair trade coffee, although fair to the growers and often also organic and pesticide free, may have traveled on two jets to get to your coffee pot, or be overpackaged in a plastic-coated aluminum bag that will never degrade.  Another more common example is paper towels, toilet paper, or copier paper with significant post-consumer recycled content or harvested through responsible forestry practices that have been shipped using gas guzzling, carbon dioxide spewing means that wipe out the environmental advantages of the original item.

The next two sins are also relatively widespread and related: the “Sin of No Proof” and The Sin of Vagueness.”  In the Sin of No Proof, some companies list their ingredients as being “green-listed” when no such certification exists. They may even not list all of the ingredients on the bottle, making it impossible to verify a claim. Many products claim environmental benefits, but have not been certified by reputable environmental companies. Look for the following green labels on products that have passed the “sniff test”: EcoLogoM (the second oldest environmental certification and standard issuer in the world and the only North American standard approved by the Global Ecolabeling Network), Green Seal, and Certified Biodegradable, among others.  For more eco-sleuthing, I absolutely love this site: go to, then click on “search by product area” (in green box on left, search for label) and click on one of the drop downs like kitchen cleaners to access a long list of labels used on many products that often mean virtually nothing, like “environmentally friendly” as opposed to what, “environmentally hostile”? Here are a few more terms to be aware (and beware) of: “chemical free (nothing is free of chemicals, even air); “non-toxic”, “all-natural”, and “earth-friendly.”

I clicked around on the site for a while and was reminded while perusing a page on general claims for household cleaners (antibacterials) of the bane of many environmentalists existence and a great example of improper testing and advertising: triclosan. Not only is the use of triclosan immense overkill unless you are in a hospital or have a compromised immune system, but it has been found in most surface waters and it poses a danger to our environment, our ecosystems, and may have contributed to increases in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Health experts state cleaning with soap and hot water is more than sufficient and that antibacterials and antimicrobials agents are unnecessary in the bulk of cases. In addition, the FDA, although it has conducted 30 years of research on triclosan, is still not convinced of either its efficacy or its cumulative effect on long term health for consumers. A 2006 study in Aquatic Toxicology by Nik Veldhoen et al., concluded that low doses of triclosan act as an endocrine disruptor (or hormonally active agent that can disrupt the physiologic function of hormones) in the North American bullfrog. Recently, 70% ethanol has begun to replace triclosan in many antibacterial formulations.

The next sin is the “Sin of Irrelevance” and lately that has been the most common sin I have seen exhibited on our grocery shelves. A good example of the Sin of Irrelevance is displaying a chlorofluorocarbon-free (CFC-free)” label on a product. Well, good for them, CFCs have been illegal in the US for close to 30 years! “Recyclable” is another very common one, note that it doesn’t say, “x” amount of previously recycled material or “x amount of post consumer products” has been recycled to make the product, it is just “recyclable”……. as almost anything is with enough gumption.

More sins: the “Sin of Fibbing.” which is the sin of a false claim, even as far as claiming a certification of greenness that does not exist. The manufacturer should be able to back up their certified organic or green claims by proving their certification (i.e., by being listed on the certification body’s website. Legitimate third-party certifiers – EcoLogoM, Chlorine Free Products Association (CFPA), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Green Guard, Green Seal – all maintain publicly available lists of certified products. Some even maintain fraud advisories for products that are falsely claiming certification.

Last, but not least, and certainly common in some election cycles is the “Sin of Lesser of Two Evils,” in which the manufacturer is trying to make you feel better about the “greenness” of an essentially unsafe or non-green product. The most famous, or infamous example of this are the brands of tobacco that are listed as “additive free” and “organic,” but which are, of course, still carcinogenic. Organic pesticides and herbicides fall into this category too as it is always better to do without any type of “insert living thing here-icide” when possible.

So now you are reeling and trying to figure out, what can I get the planet this holiday season? How do I sort through the sea of claims? Many of the websites I have mentioned above and listed below can help. In addition, be skeptical when looking at a product label and look for some of the certification labels like the Green Seal. Be very aware of packaging whenever possible. A green product in a package that lives forever is not necessarily green. Biodegradable packaging like the cardboard box Ecover dish detergent comes in is better than a plastic bottle. Use simple products and please don’t fall for the “antimicrobial” trap. As kids we didn’t die off in hordes from bacterial infections. With so much of the island on septic systems, think about what you are putting down your drains and make sure you don’t mind swimming in it. And when you can, just do the best you can to shop responsibly and locally. This holiday season, remember less is more, and I hope you and yours are happy and healthy.

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