Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Greenwashing and environmental claims

I was recently drinking from a disposable cup that claimed to be “biodegradable”. While it may in fact be biodegradable, the question that arises is by when and under what conditions? I’m not a scientist but I suspect everything is biodegradable given enough time. Therefore, the biodegradable claim provides no useful information and may in fact be misleading if the cup is simply tossed in the garbage and ultimately buried in a landfill without sunlight and oxygen.

The point I’d like to discuss today is the importance of accurate environmental claims and to point readers towards a new guide published by our friendly neighbors to the north.

On June 25th, Canada’s The Competition Bureau, in collaboration with the Canadian Standards Association released guidelines for the business community to ensure that green marketing was not misleading, while providing consumers with greater assurance about the accuracy of environmental claims. The 72-page report addresses a number of commonly used green claims and provides examples of best practices on how such claims can be used by businesses to comply with the false or misleading provisions of Canadian laws.

Among other practices, the Guide states that:
  • The use of vague claims implying general environmental improvement are insufficient and should be avoided.
  • Environmental claims should be clear, specific, accurate and not misleading.
  • Environmental claims should be verified and substantiated, prior to being made.

You can get a copy of the guide here: Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers

One item I found particularly interesting was the entry on sustainability claims. Here is what the guide says:

The concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex and still under study. At this time there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability shall be made.
CAN/CSA-ISO 14021, Clause 5.5

In the spirit of honest advertising and useful information, I have to agree that a claim of achieving sustainability would be inappropriate within the systems thinking paradigm.

I haven’t had a chance to completely read the guide but based on a quick review, it looked like a responsible list of criteria we could all adopt as we go forward with our green business, working towards sustainability.

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