As one pundit said, “our product is green” is joining “the check’s in the mail” as one of the most frequent fibs in our modern times. And as David Gelles noted in the New York Times on October 18, 2015, Volkswagen’s campaign to promote diesel fuel as a low-emissions alternative to gasoline has become one of the most egregious examples of greenwashing to date – now that we’ve found out that they rigged their diesel cars with software that tricked emissions tests to get better results.
Greenwashing (when a company tries to portray itself as more environmentally minded than it actually is) has become the order of the day because consumers have (finally) warmed to sustainable and organic products and services. This year, Cone Inc.’s Trend Tracker found that nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product if they feel misled by environmental claims – and more than a third will go so far as to boycott a company’s products.
One corporation after another has jumped on the “green-your-corporation-for-a-better-public-image” bandwagon. This is so ubiquitous that Steven Colbert, for one, couldn’t resist: he said that they now have a “Green Colbert Report” – they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon. In this rush to be seen as green, companies often exaggerate claims, or simply make them up. Magali Delmas, a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles, has said that “more and more firms have been combining poor environmental performance with positive communication about environmental performance.”
So why is this necessarily a bad thing? Doesn’t really hurt anybody does it?
Actually, it does hurt us all. As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather puts it in a new report, greenwash is actually “an extremely serious matter…it is insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.” In other words, it’s very hard for customers to know what choices make a difference when some marketers are muddying the waters for all. When buyers throw up their hands in confusion, we all lose. And it results in consumer and regulator complacency – if one corporation in a particular industry gets away with greenwashing, then other corporations will follow suit, leading to an industry-wide illusion of sustainability, rather than sustainability itself.
With textiles specifically, we see environmental claims that are just as outrageous as the new “Natural Energy Snack on the Go” from Del Monte – individually wrapped bananas.
The problem is that the issues involved in evaluating a claim are often complex, and they vary greatly by product. In addition, there is a raging debate about what constitutes green practices – for example, recycled polyester is considered a “green” choice in textiles, yet what yardstick is being used to make that claim? We have done numerous blog posts on why any kind of synthetic has a much greater environmental impact than any naturally raised fiber. If we compare synthetics to organically raised fibers, do we also include the benefits of supporting organic agriculture, or is that a benefit that gets lost in the equation?
Even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for environmental claims (called the Green Guides), these guidelines are not law, and are only enforceable if a complaint is lodged to the FTC and there is enough evidence to get a court order forcing the company to remove the claim. But what if people simply don’t have enough knowledge to lodge a complaint?
I’ve spent years reading about the issues involved in textile production (one of the most complex supply systems in all manufacturing) but don’t feel capable of evaluating other products. That’s where transparency on the part of manufacturers comes in: Consumers have to understand that there are no green products – every product uses resources and creates waste. And there are tradeoffs. But beyond that understanding, third party certifications give us all certain measurable standards by which we can compare products, and are a useful tool.
But even certifications need some kind of knowledge base on the part of the consumer in order to be valuable. (What’s being measured? Who’s doing the measuring? Which environmental claims are relevant, and what are subterfuge?)
Certifications (not to be confused with labels and standards) fall into three categories: first, second and third party certifications:
- In first party certifications, a person or an organization says it meets certain claims; there is not usually an independent test to verify those claims. These are usually a fairly simple claim, such as that the product will last for at least a year. An example of this type of certification is that of Kravet’s “Kravet Green” collection, because Kravet itself is telling us that their fabrics are green. There is no mention of any other certification bodies corroborating their statements.
- In second party certification, an association or group provides the assurance that a product meets certain criteria. This type of certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest. Under new FTC guidelines, companies that are members of the trade organization or group that certifies their product must disclose that relationship to the consumer. An example of second party certification can be considered that of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program, which has developed a set of standards and which awards use of their logo if companies comply with these standards.
- Third party certifications are issued by independent testing companies based on impartial evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources with reference to a publicly available set of standards. Third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve. A third party certification is represented by the Global Organic Textile Standard, which has a public set of standards and which is administered by independent testing labs around the world. In other words, you can’t pay these labs to misrepresent their findings, since their business is testing and certification only.
Like green claims, there is also an abundance of seals and labels that assure environmental worthiness, experts say.
“About once a week, I have a client that will bring up a new certification I’ve never even heard of – and I’m in this industry,” said Kevin Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Washington-based company that helps businesses plan green marketing strategies. “It’s kind of a Wild West, anybody can claim themselves to be green.”
Mr. Wilhelm said the plethora of labels made it difficult for businesses and consumers to know which labels they should pay attention to. “There’s no way for the average consumer or even for a C.E.O. to know which ones to go for or what they should get,” he said.
Okay, which certifications apply to textiles and what do they tell us? Tune in next week.