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Papermakers beware: “The Seven Sins of Greenwash”

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Papermakers beware: “The Seven Sins of Greenwash”

August 16, 2010 - 00:42
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LONDON, Aug. 16, 2010 (RISI) -TerraChoice is a North American based environmental marketing agency which claims it "helps to grow the world's most sustainable companies". It has devised its "Seven Sins of Greenwashing" list, which makes for interesting reading. But perhaps even more interesting is that in the top two on the list paper products are held up as examples of "how not to do it" if you are going to avoid greenwash.

More can be read on Seven Sins of Greenwash and TerraChoicehere

According the English Oxford Dictionary, "Greenwash" means: "Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image".

Here are "The Seven Sins of Greenwash" and their descriptions:

Sin of the Hidden Trade-off

A claim suggesting that a product is "green" based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important.

Sin of No Proof

An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence.

Sin of Vagueness

A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. "All-natural" is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. "All natural" isn't necessarily "green".

Sin of Worshiping False Labels

A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.

Sin of Irrelevance

An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. "CFC-free" is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this Sin, as might the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle.

Sin of Fibbing

Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be (for example)"Energy Star" certified or registered.

The paper industry and environmental marketing

So what can the pulp and paper industry do to avoid greenwash? We at RISI found a marketing expert from Europe to answer questions about the sustainability of paper in particular. Laura Maanavilja, is manager, communications, at Brussels based CSR Europe, specialists in corporate and social responsibility marketing.

RISI: First of all, as an industry outsider, how do you perceive the sustainability of the paper industry?

Maanavilja: As a resource-intensive industry, the paper industry has significant environmental impacts at all phases of the product lifecycle, from sourcing to manufacturing to disposal. Effectively addressing issues such as climate change, air and water pollution or sustainable use of natural resources is a key challenge for the whole supply chain.
In addition to its environmental footprint, the industry has to consider its performance on the economic and social dimensions of sustainable development. How does the industry impact local communities around the world? How does it innovate its products, services and processes to stay competitive in the rapidly changing global marketplace and ensure its long-term sustainability?

Do you think the paper industry in general does a good job at getting the green message out?

More and more consumers are interested in the environmental impacts of the products they buy and use in their everyday lives - and many of these are made of paper. In many cases, paper is perceived as a sustainable alternative, for example to plastic. On the other hand, consumers are extremely concerned about the harmful environmental impacts of paper production on the world's forests. Many consumers probably have a mixed perception of how "green" paper really is.

What could it do better?

Over the past years, the paper industry has made considerable efforts to manage its environmental impacts, for example when it comes to sustainable forestry or efficient use of water and energy. Communicating these achievements to consumers and other stakeholders remains a challenge.

Have you got some examples of 'bad' green marketing, or greenwashing?

Any "green" marketing that doesn't accurately reflect the sustainability performance and environmental benefits of the advertised product is misleading. For example, a recent ad for a "zero-emission" electric car was judged unacceptable as it implied that the car's use wouldn't result in any emissions, which is not the case.

Any green claims used in marketing have to be truthful, accurate and able to be substantiated. Good advice for green communications can be found for example in CSR Europe's sustainable marketing guide or TerraChoice's checklist of the seven sins of greenwashing.

Unfortunately, the rising demand for environmentally friendly products seems to tempt some companies into trying to make short term gains from green claims - greenwashing, in short. The problem is that one inappropriate ad can seriously undermine the credibility of the sustainability efforts of an entire company or industry for a long time.

What advice would you give to companies carrying out their own environmental marketing?

Sustainability issues are complex by nature, and communicating green issues in a way that is relevant, truthful and accurate but at the same time easy to understand and engaging for consumers is not an easy task. The key is to be open and honest. Consumers don't expect you to be perfect, but they expect you to do your best and take their concerns seriously. Companies who recognize this are on the right track.

What does CSR Europe do to help companies achieve these goals?

CSR Europe is the European network for corporate social responsibility - a network of around 70 multinational companies and 27 European CSR organizations. We provide a platform for learning and best practice exchange, facilitate joint projects between companies and stakeholders, and promote dialogue between European businesses and policymakers on issues related to the role of business in addressing societal challenges.

Laura Maanavilja can be contacted at CSR Europe: