As more and more companies are touting the eco-virtues of their products, the issue of greenwashing has become a hot topic. So hot, in fact, that it was the cover story of a recent Reader's Digest. And you can't get more mainstream than RD, last I checked.
In some cases, accusations of greenwashing are totally legit. Companies are intentionally deceiving consumers about their products and should be held accountable. But the truth is, almost every "green" product has something not-so-green about it.
According to a study conducted last year by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, 99.9% of the 1,018 so-called green products they investigated were found making false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims about their eco-friendliness. The single exception was a roll of Canadian-made paper towels.
With stories and facts like these reaching mainstream audiences, what's the average consumer to do? Do we throw our hands in the air and abandon the green economy all together?
I think a good starting point is to admit that there are unavoidable tradeoffs between the environment and the economy anytime there is production or consumption. In fact, just being alive on this planet creates an environmental impact. So unless you're living naked in a cave without any modern conveniences, it's time to accept the fact that there are going to be ecological consequences associated with mere existence.
This said, there is no excuse for companies that take advantage of consumers' inability to distinguish between products that are truly green and products that only appear to be green.
Of all the companies currently working in the green economy, Wal-Mart seems to be doing it right.
Recently I was in Bentonville, Arkansas at Wal-Mart Headquarters. It was there that I learned of their newly launched "Love, Earth" jewelry line, which is totally transparent for the consumer from mine to body. It's the result of a collaborative effort involving Wal-Mart, Conservation International, and Wal-Mart's supply chain partners who have committed to standards that meet certain environmental, human rights, and community development criteria. Consumers can visit http://www.loveearthinfo.com/ to see where their Love, Earth jewelry was mined and manufactured, and learn about suppliers' environmental and social programs.
We're all aware of Wal-Mart taking steps toward sustainability. Their jewelry line may seem like a drop in the bucket, but it's going to be a pretty big drop considering the fact that Wal-Mart is the largest retail seller of jewelry in the world.
Regardless of what the experts might say about a company's greening efforts, every corporation's primary interest is to sell products that appeal to consumers. And there's nothing wrong with that. But is it too much to ask that those same companies promoting green products just keep us--you and me, the average consumers--in the loop when it comes to information about their production processes? Transparency is key.
And if Wal-Mart can do it, then so can the rest of us.