Sneaky 'green' marketing: the world of greenwashing

Greenwashing in action

Credit: Jamie Tuffrey

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But of course, now more than ever, switching to green is important.

To remedy this complicated situation shoppers need clear, concise and trustworthy messages about the environmental impacts of each product we buy. Unless we can believe the environmental claims on the packet, and shop accordingly, businesses will lose the incentive to make greener products.

What is being done about greenwashing?

As Futerra points out, "most greenwash is due to ignorance and/or sloppiness rather than malicious intent".

In Australia, the law that covers greenwashing is the Trade Practices Act 1974 and lately a few big names have been pinged for being naughty. For example, in September of 2008 the Federal Court of Australia ruled that General Motors had broken this law with an advertisement that proclaimed the carbon neutrality of Saab cars.

On closer inspection, it was clear that the 17 native trees the company pledged to plant for each car sold would offset only one year's worth of carbon emissions, not the entire emissions over the lifetime of the vehicle, as the ads implied.

But is this law dating from the 1970s specific enough to cover all six of the greenwash sins?

Lin Enright from the ACCC thinks so.

"The Trade Practices Act still includes those who mislead and deceive by omission", she explains, as well as confirming that the newer voluntary Australian Standard 14021 on environmental claims can be taken into account by a court when establishing what the public would reasonably expect from a company.

Consumer association Choice is combating the greenwash by asking shoppers to make examples of companies they believe to be engaged in greenwashing.

Kate Norris from Choice says that although greenwashing isn't novel (they have seen complaints about it since the mid '90s) they have recently been receiving a number of enquiries from people wondering if they can 'trust' green electricity or carbon offsets.

Norris says there is a particular difficulty with those two items as both are new, intangible goods.

The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) manages the advertising industry's self-regulation system, and has released a discussion paper on greenwashing.

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