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Operation Greenwash

Operation Greenwash

Watch out for terms like "all-natural," "non-toxic," or "earth-friendly."

November 21, 2007 —

As a growing number of Americans begin to consider the ethical pros and cons of the products they buy, more and more companies are scrambling to stake their claim to a suddenly powerful demographic. In many cases, this scramble is centered more around marketing and PR than product development, creating a phenomenon savvy consumers know as "greenwashing." It's an annoyance when we recognize, and it's an insult to our intelligence.  It's even worse when we don't recognize it and bring a product home, only to read the fine print or a damning article on the Internet later.

No one is immune to being mislead by a clever marketing ploy—ethical or otherwise—but in the case of greenwashing there are a few things to look for that might greatly reduce your chances of being conned. TerraChoice, an environmental marketing agency, has drafted "The Six Sins of Greenwashing" to help shoppers identify when a product is actually cutting CO2, and when it's just blowing smoke.

Because We Said So?

A typical example of a product that reeks of greenwashing to many is the Swiffer, a dry mop that uses disposable sheets to collect dirt and dust more efficiently than a traditional wet mop. Swiffer claims that by decreasing the amount of hot water and toxic floor cleaning chemicals used in American homes, its product is bringing both convenience and environmental benefits to the market. Many bloggers were less than blown away by these claims, pointing out that the disposable nature of the product brings with it a host of environmental problems.

BusinessWeek interviewed one of the designers of the Swiffer in an effort to get to the bottom of the controversy. The most revealing aspect of the interview though, is the designer's description of how the product came to be called "green." If you read between the lines, it's clear that the ecological benefits of the Swiffer were more of an afterthought than a design imperative.

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