Greenwash and How to Spot It

A few weeks ago I saw a commercial on TV for bug spray – a pressurized can full of a chemical capable of killing all manner of crawling critters including cockroaches. Now anyone who has lived in a high-rise will know that, unless squished, these things are just about indestructible. So anything capable of knocking them out must be potent.

No matter, the product was presented in bright green livery and, with great fanfare, was declared ‘environmentally friendly’. Now, lets be reasonable. How could the spraying of a chemical capable of killing cockroaches and toxic enough to have a red poison sticker on the side of the container possibly be green?

The spin was this. The active ingredient in the spray is a pyrethroid, a chemical compound that occurs naturally in some plant species. The plants are able to manufacture the chemical in their leaves to deter insects that want to eat them. So, because the pyrethroid is natural it has to be green. If it is in plants then it must be OK to use in the environment and must be environmentally friendly.

This is very shaky logic. We could use it to say that a tsunami, volcanic eruptions or uranium occur naturally, ergo, they are environmentally friendly. You see the point.

Greenwash is the common term for this practice of bending the truth in marketing to give a positive environmental spin. The standard definition of greenwash is where companies spin their products and policies as environmentally friendly even when they are not. The related term ‘green sheen’ describes organizations that use their PR and marketing departments to try and show that they are adopting practices that are beneficial to the environment.

It is hard to see how the spraying of a chemical that will harm insects is friendly to the environment. Remember that insects perform any number of useful tasks from pollination to the recycling of nutrients in the soil. Yet this kind of product greenwashing occurs all the time for all kinds of products and services.

A recent report by the marketing company TerraChoice found that in a random survey of over 1,000 products almost all the marketing was tainted by greenwash. Amazingly the average number of green products per store has almost tripled in three years since 2006.

You can check out the report here

As concerned consumers, what do we do in the face of this onslaught of the new green? How do we make good choices among the wave of products that claim to be environmentally friendly? Here is a tip: Think about the bigger picture.

If a product is friendly to the environment its use and manufacture must have at least a neutral effect. This is tricky to achieve in modern mass production. Try to imagine what went in to making the product or what using the product will do to the environment.

The reason that uranium mining can never be green is that a toxic material is exposed, concentrated and held in a potentially volatile state. This does not mean that it cannot or should not be used in power plants to generate electricity; just that it cannot be called green (even though it has no carbon emissions). The bigger picture is very different to the narrow one of low emissions.

It may be necessary to use chemicals in concentrations strong enough to be an insecticide. Deltamethrin, an insecticide based on the pyrethroids in the bug spray, has been used in Africa to rid large areas of the tsetse fly, a carrier of a parasite that causes sleeping sickness in humans and cattle. A similar process, using the more toxic and persistent DDT, eradicated malaria from the US in the early 1950’s – more that 4,650,000 homes were sprayed. These actions improved human health and economic prosperity but they were not environmentally friendly.

So when you see a green label on a product or actors dancing through sunny fields in a commercial for a bug spray think about what it really means. Are the claims real? You may decide to purchase the product, but do so because you need to get rid of bugs and not because you believe the product to be environmentally friendly. 

Chances are that the green label is just a label that is green, and nothing more.