Archive for May, 2009
An updated version of the 2007 report The Six Sins of Greenwashing has just been released. And like its predecessor, this version offers sensational findings: of 2,219 products making environmental claims that researchers found in North American retailers, “over 98%” committed one of several “sins.” The 2007 report identified six such sins. This year’s edition adds a seventh.
I suppose that’s what passes for progress these days.
First, some background. In 2007, TerraChoice, a Canadian research firm that operates the Canadian government’s EcoLogo program, sent research teams into six category-leading “big box” stores with orders “to record every product-based environmental claim they observed.” TerraChoice then assessed each of the claims to see if they passed muster — that is, that they were specific, substantive, and could be backed up with some reasonable proof points, among other criteria. All told, out of just over 1,000 products, “all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences.”
Late last year, TerraChoice repeated the process, though extended its reach: Its researchers were sent into retailers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. The track record was slightly better: 25 products found in North American stores were deemed “sin-free,” says TerraChoice. The trends were similar in the other countries.
At first glance, those findings seem dire and depressing. But much like some of the eco-claims themselves, TerraChoice’s report doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. What’s really going on here? Are manufacturers truly that overwhelmingly misleading? Is just about everyone out there pulling the green wool over our collective eyes? Or has TerraChoice set a bar so unreasonably high that even the most well-intentioned companies can’t clear it, and lumped the imperfect claims together with the truly bad ones in order to make its point? In other words, who’s greenwashing who?
Truth is, there’s a little of each going on.
First, honor is due. TerraChoice has performed a public service here, calling attention to the fact that so many companies are making claims that are anything from fuzzy to fraudulent. The groundwork they’ve done here is invaluable, even if the conclusions they’ve drawn from it are, in my opinion, a bit misleading.
At first glance, TerraChoice’s methodology seems reasonable. They put products making green claims through their filter that asks, in effect:
- Is the claim truthful?
- Does the company offer validation for its claim from an independent and trusted third party?
- Is the claim specific, using terms that have agreed-upon definitions, not vague ones like “natural” or “nontoxic”?
- Is the claim relevant to the product it accompanies?
- Does the claim address the product’s principal environmental impact(s) or does it distract consumers from the product’s real problems?
Products that failed to meet such requirements committed one or more “sins.” As you can see, almost every product has done so.
Is the bar too high? Scot Case doesn’t think so. “Manufacturers are doing a lot of great things,” Case, the TerraChoice executive who headed the study, told me recently. “They are making significant advances. The challenge seems to be that their rhetoric is outpacing the actual improvements that they’re making. So, we found all of these products — many of them make wonderfully specific, legitimate environmental claims. And they would be perfect, except that they want to take one more step and make an outrageous claim. And that’s why the percentage of products that end up on the sinner’s list is so high. It’s because the marketers don’t seem to know when to stop.”
I asked for an example. “A product will make a claim that it contains 30 percent post-consumer recycled content,” Case explained. “That’s a good, simple claim. But then what they’ll do is add on top of that that ‘This is the greenest product ever made.'”
I countered that such a statement, should it truly exist, isn’t an environmental claim so much as the typical hyperbole that is part and parcel of marketing of all types. It’s akin to a mattress company claiming that their product is “Your ticket to a better night’s sleep,” or a beer company’s claim that its product, “Tastes great. Less filling.” It’s not provable; it’s just hype. Consumers are left to use their own smarts to discern the difference.
“I think that the challenge is that in this particular sector, we’ve got to be particularly precise with our language,” responded Case. “Because what we’re talking about are things that consumers can’t see. When a manufacturer claims, for example, that their product is energy efficient, or that it meets the Energy Star standard, that’s not something that I as an average consumer can test. When I’m walking the store down the refrigerator aisle, I don’t have some sort of magic device to know if it’s really energy efficient or not. So it seems appropriate that a manufacturer should be willing to provide proof and to make that proof widely available for me and other consumers.”
(You can listen to a podcast of my entire conversation with Case here.)
Now, before we go further, it should be noted that not long ago, Case bought a refrigerator he believed to be energy efficient, but which ended up uising twice as much electricity as the manufacturer claimed. So, he’s got some cold, hard experience here about misleading green claims. However, it sounds to me like he was a victim not of greenwashing, but consumer fraud.
But that’s not what much of the “greenwashing” documented by TerraChoice is about. Some of it is about companies like SC Johnson, the maker of such venerable consumer brands as Glade, Pledge, Raid, and Windex, which has taken aggressive measures to reduce the toxic ingredients of its products and processes. Its Greenlist rating system — about which I’ve written in the past — has been systematically reducing the toxic ingredients and packaging of all of its products since 2001. Greenlist has won a bevy of awards, including honors from environmental groups and a Presidential Green Chemistry Award.
But Greenlist is a self-certified claim — that is, it has not hired an independent third-party organization like Case’s to verify the claim. Thus, it’s verboten — a “sinner,” according to TerraChoice.
I asked Case about Greenlist. “It’s a wonderful program,” he acknowledged. But, he added, “The litmus test for whether a label was legitimate or not was quite simple: Can a consumer find out exactly what that label means?”
I suspect they can, if they conduct the same 10-second Google search I just did. The top result was a page on SC Johnson’s website that provided as much information as I think any reasonable consumer would want or expect, with deeper links for those who want to know more.
The point here isn’t to debate Greenlist or anything else. It’s that, as I’ve pointed out before, a lot of what’s called “greenwash” is in the eye of the beholder. What for some consumers might be a reasonable and meaningful marketing claim can be seen by others to be a travesty of justice. Sometimes the criticism is justified; often it’s nit-picking.
I don’t really know how many of TerraChoice’s “sinners” amount to nit-picking. That’s one of the ironic problems with the study: It lacks transparency and accountability. There are no products named, no sinners shamed. Are the “sins” detected by TerraChoice really all that egregious or, as I suggested last time, are the accused companies more sloppy than sinister? We don’t know. Is SC Johnson as big a sinner as the toy company Case described that put its own green seal on a product because it decided unilaterally that wood was a greener choice than plastic? It’s hard to tell. We are left with only the sensational factoid — ninety-eight percent! — and not the supporting evidence. We must make up our own minds whether to believe the facts, and what to make of them.
Kind of like some of the “sinners” TerraChoice is trying to fight.
No doubt, countless consumers, already suspecting the worst about companies’ green motivations, will accept TerraChoice’s findings as gospel — after all, it confirms their suspicions — not bothering to question what’s behind them.
In the end, I can’t help but wonder which is worse: the companies that aren’t being fully truthful or transparent about their claims, or the consumers who will walk away from the green marketplace in frustration, dismissing all green products — the good ones and the rest — as cynical ploys by uncaring companies intended solely at separating consumers from their wallets.
Written by Yoni Levinson Wednesday, 20 May 2009
“Walkable urbanism” is a catch-all phrase that means many things. It means building developments, towns and cities that put pedestrians first, rather than cars. It means putting retail and office space within walking distance of residential space. It means developing mixed use land, something that has traditionally been avoided by real estate developers. It means replacing suburban sprawl with… real communities. It’s a good thing.
So it’s exciting to hear that the City of Toronto has big, walkable plans for the hundreds of dreary high rise towers that house many of its residents. Right now, these buildings are energy inefficient, and exist in empty plots of land with little transportation and few businesses.
All that is about to change, though because the City plans on retrofitting the buildings with a slew of energy saving measures – improved insulation, better heating and cooling, solar panels, solar hot water… you name it. It’s estimated that these retrofits will cost a fraction of what it would cost to actually tear down the buildings and build new ones.
But besides the fact that the buildings are going to be new and sparkling green, the City is planning on making dynamic use of the previously bare, empty land around the high rises. They are bringing in businesses and farmer’s markets, putting in community gardens and open space, and even setting aside office space in some of the buildings themselves. And they plan on expanding their light rail also, to make these areas more connected.
When we think of the people most likely to bring about necessary green changes, we often think of energy companies or car companies. But let’s not forget that developers – and everyone else who plans how we use our space – can make an extraordinary amount of difference
Kyocera Corporation has announced that it will supply solar modules for the new Toyota Prius solar ventilation system, an optional feature for the hybrid car model introduced in Japan by Toyota Motor Corporation last week. The output of the system will be 56 watts and the cell conversion efficiency will be 16.5%.
The system ventilates the air inside of the car by using the electricity generated by the solar module on the rooftop to drive the fans while the car is parked during the daytime. This feature automatically moderates temperature rise inside of the vehicle even during hot seasons.
For this product, Kyocera has implemented quality control evaluations, done through rigorous testing to confirm heat resistance, vibration resistance, shock resistance and other aspects, in order to ensure that the quality meets the standards required for onboard components used on the new Toyota Prius.
For the production of this module, Kyocera has set up a dedicated production line with specialized manufacturing engineers to ensure thorough manufacturing control
Because I’ve been frequently critical of the half-baked notion of vertical farms, it seems only fair that I link to this article about high tech greenhouses that, at first blush, have a somewhat vertical farm-y feel to them.
Vertical farms, you may recall, represent the extreme of the local food movement: massive edifices sited in urban environments that use a combination of technologies, from water recycling to artificial sunlight, to feed a city’s population in a sustainable manner. Such farms are entirely hypothetical — and, I’ve argued, impractical, pointless, and even faintly ludicrous.
Say hello to the new $50-million complex in Ventura County, California:
On a recent afternoon, [farmer Casey Houweling] was eager to show visitors clusters of plump, sweet tomatoes hanging overhead from vines that reach high into the rafters. This arrangement allows the farm’s 450 permanent employees to climb ladders to pick the fruit instead of stooping. The plants, which are fed individually through tubing that looks like intravenous hospital equipment, produce 20 times more fruit per acre than in conventional field production.
Virtually nothing is wasted in this ecosystem. Workers have dug a four-acre pond to store rainwater and runoff. This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation. Fertilizer use has been reduced by half. There are no herbicides and almost no pesticides, and there is no dust.
Five-acres of photovoltaic solar cells supply much of the electricity to run pumps and climate controls. Thermal systems collect solar heat and warehouse refrigeration exhaust to warm the greenhouses on cool evenings.
Cool! The system presently only makes sense for high-value crops that can justify the huge capital costs, but that cost disparity is shrinking as water, energy, and other inputs become more expensive.
Does this mean I was wrong to knock vertical farms? The answer is (surprise!) no. The article makes clear that the success of these high-tech farms, as with all farms, is exquisitely sensitive to input costs and food prices. It makes most sense to site them in California, because the sunny, temperate climate means more growing days and less need to spend energy on heating and cooling. And nothing about the new greenhouses addresses the sunlight issue that troubles multi-story designs.
In other words, technological advances may make future farms vastly more efficient, but these improvements won’t erase the comparative advantages of certain growing regions. This isn’t a problem; rather, it’s a good thing. Our farms will get better at producing food, our cities will get better at housing and moving people, and our environment will benefit.
Image by Eric Ellingsen and Dickson Despommier.
Abnormal noises could affect growth and feeding of the goats, officials say
A large number of goats in Taiwan may have died of exhaustion because of noise from a wind farm.
A farmer on an outlying island told the BBC he had lost more than 400 animals after eight giant wind turbines were installed close to his grazing land.
The Ministry of Agriculture says it suspects that noise may have caused the goats’ demise through lack of sleep.
The power company, Taipower, has offered to pay for part of the costs of building a new farmhouse elsewhere.
A spokesman for the company said the cause of the goats’ deaths still needed to be investigated, but that it doubted the goats died from the noise.
Before the wind farm was built about four years ago, farmer Kuo Jing-shan had about 700 goats.
Shortly after the electricity-generating turbines were installed, the 57-year-old says his animals started to die. He now has just 250 goats left.
“The goats looked skinny and they weren’t eating. One night I went out to the farmhouse and the goats were all standing up; they weren’t sleeping.
“I didn’t know why. If I had known, I would’ve done something to stop the dying,” he told the BBC’s Cindy Sui in Taiwan.
A local livestock inspector from the agriculture ministry said that Mr Kuo was the only farmer to have reported such large-scale deaths.
He said his claim was plausible because of all the farmers in the Penghu archipelago, his farm was closest to the wind turbines.
“Abnormal noises could affect the normal growth and feeding intake of animals and cause them to suffer sleep deprivation,” Lu Ming-tseng said.
Mr Kuo said the power company had offered to help him move but that there would be no compensation for the loss of his goats.
“It’s a pain to relocate, but what can I do. I can’t survive with the wind turbines,” he said.
A JOLT TO THE ELECTRIC VEHICLE MARKET: ZMC OFFERS THE ZENN FOR UNDER $10,000!ZENN Motor Company, a leading developer of zero
emission transportation solutions, is pleased to announce it will offer the 2009 All-Electric
ZENN LSV (low-speed vehicle) for an unprecedented price of $9,995 under its Ambassador
Program through a combination of an innovative product Ambassador rebate program and a
one time federal tax credit. This offer is available through June 30th, 2009.
The ZENN creates excitement wherever it goes. In exchange for their efforts to promote the
ZENN in their communities and sharing their experiences with the Company, Ambassadors
are provided with a $4,750 rebate that can be immediately applied at point-of-purchase.
Ambassadors who sign up for this limited-time program at point of purchase will receive a
tool kit that includes a ZENN hat, ZENN t-shirt, and promotional literature. They will also
participate in online surveys and feedback questionnaires during the first three months of
The program’s pricing structure is as follows:
ZENN MSRP: $15,995
Ambassador Rebate: -$ 4,750
Total Purchase Price* $11,245
Less 10%Federal Tax Credit** -$1,250
Total Cost to Customer***: $9,995
*Please note the total purchase price does not include optional accessories, delivery fees or sales
taxes. **Actual Federal Tax credit may vary depending on individual tax situation. Federal Tax
Credit is based on 10% of total purchase price plus $1,250 in standard delivery fees.
***Total Cost to Customer includes both the Ambassador point of sale rebate and an estimated
amount for the federal tax credit incentive that the customer may be eligible for when filing their
income taxes. Cost to customer is net of taxes, delivery fees, and optional accessories.
May 3rd, 2009 by Karin Kloosterman
Green Prophet readers know that saving money and composting veggie waste are both very green things to do. How about saving money and composting together? Our reader Cecilia Dahari sends us this tip to a Rachel Ray video which shows us how to make a garden composter for about $10.
Even though I’ve seen ads for pro-looking composters in Israel home stores (for about $150), I’ve made a composter in my garden for nothing. Just grabbed an old garbage can kicking around the garden, which already had a gaping hole in it. But if you like things clean and simple, and cheap, check out the video to make your own composter.