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Are firms telling little green lies?

Sustainable Life • Web site takes on ad claims that environmental facts may not back up
by: jIM CLARK, The Greenwashing Index encourages consumers to think about the credibility of companies’ environmental claims.

Kermit the Frog stands in a forest next to a hybrid sports utility vehicle and says, 'It's easy being green.' But the company that makes that SUV fought against upgraded federal fuel-efficiency standards.

A tree branch that looks like a human arm rests approvingly on the shoulder of a young man drinking bottled water. But eight out of 10 disposable water bottles in the U.S. end up in a landfill.

Images of nature and messages of Earth-friendliness seem to be everywhere in advertising these days as companies respond to increased public awareness about climate change and resulting concern for environmental issues.

But two University of Oregon professors are asking consumers to pay closer attention to ads that make claims about the environmental friendliness of companies' practices or products.

Deborah Morrison, the school's Chambers distinguished professor of advertising, said that ad agencies across the globe are jumping on the green bandwagon.

Morrison, working with associate professor Kim Sheenan, recently helped Austin, Texas-based advertising firm EnviroMedia Social Marketing launch a Web site called the Greenwashing Index.

It invites users to post ads making environmental claims and then rate the credibility of the claims on a scale of 1 to 5.

Environmentalists and others use the term greenwashing to describe a company's efforts to market itself as environmentally friendly when that effort is focused more on the benefits of the marketing than on a commitment to truly sustainable practices.

'This area is a trendy, relatively new field for advertising to feel good about,' Morrison said. 'I want advertising professionals to look at this and say, 'OK, what should we be doing?' '

The site is funded solely by the ad agency. About 50 ads have been posted so far.

Labels also take the test

A company can portray itself as tree-hugging whether it's at the forefront of sustainability or dumping toxic waste into a river near you. And most consumers are too busy to do the research.

'That marketing works now because people want those solutions,' said Jeremiah Baumann, program director for Environment Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. 'But that's exactly what creates the opportunity for companies to engage in deceptive marketing.'

In addition to advertising campaigns, product labeling also is getting more scrutiny.

In November, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc., a firm with offices in Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada, released the results of its survey of more than 1,000 products found in big-box stores.

The survey evaluated claims from bathroom cleaners labeled as '100 percent natural' to paper towels that claim 'post-consumer recycled content' against six survey categories, including lack of proof or hidden trade-offs.

According to the study, almost all of the environmental marketing claims were found to be misleading or false.

Consumers, take control

TerraChoice said consumers can avoid greenwashing by looking for labels that represent third-party verification of environmentally friendly claims and therefore back up their authenticity.

'We need to make sure consumers demand proof,' TerraChoice Vice President Scot Case said.

The first label on its list: a label it administers called EcoLogo, which it describes as 'North America's oldest and most widely known environmental standard.'

Case said the results of the study could benefit any number of reputable eco-labels, not just his own company's.

As more and more advertising firms find ways to represent their corporate clients as nature lovers, agencies that raise questions about advertising claims may be effectively distancing themselves from the practice of greenwashing.

Indeed, Morrison said, marketing agencies that point out the potentially disingenuous claims of others stand to boost their own reputations.

However, she added, the main purpose of the Greenwashing Index is for consumers to start a conversation about what claims mean and whether they are real.

Baumann said the real solution is better enforcement of truth in advertising.

And that may be coming. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission held the first in a series of hearings intended to examine green advertising claims.

The commission last updated its guidelines for the use of environmental marketing claims in 1998.

'I tend to love the idea of an industry self-regulating beautifully,' Morrison said. But, she added, 'I know that's optimistic.'

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