One Silver Lining: Recession Could Cripple Greenwash

04/15/2009 10:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Amid the negative economic forecasts - housing prices continuing to fall for a while, credit markets taking their time to stabilize - there are also positive trends. Jobs may be scarce, but a massive embrace of clean energy and efficiency may be a good way to stimulate entirely new categories of green-collar jobs. In addition, old-fashioned values may be coming back in new guises, like sharing being referred to as 'fractional ownership' and quality over quantity now called 'treasuring'.

At the same time that some green segments may take short-term hits in the recession, overall more and more people are embracing LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. Another segment called BoBos - bourgeois bohemians - is also growing. Both these groups of buyers are ready to rescale their habits and purchase just what they really need. In other words, we're moving away from the age of consumerism.

Greenwash is rampant. Last year's TerraChoice survey showed more than 90% of 1,018 consumer products had at one time practiced some form of green deception. As buyers though, we're becoming more sophisticated, and beginning to demand that companies cut the greenwash and come clean, about both the green aspects of their products and internal efforts to be more sustainable.

That's tougher for public companies, with their relentless short-term profit requirements, than it is for private ones. So initially, we may see more greenwash rather than less, as companies try to meet demand for green by just talking the talk, rather than walking the walk.

It won't work forever, however. There's no such thing as insta-green. Companies need to do the work inside and out to dispel accusations of greenwash and keep customers happy for the long term. In the U.S. the FTC is speeding up plans to regulate greenwashing, and Australia's Association of National Advertisers is thinking of developing a code to help regulate environmental claims.

Start-up GoodGuide is even promising to provide scientist-vetted data about purchases to counteract greenwash.

In the end, however, it won't be punitive measures that will keep greenwash in check. It will be the larger and larger numbers of cautious and informed buyers. If leaner times are going tolast that will be all of us. We'll all be looking at maximizing our purchasing power and the quality (including environmental quality) of what we buy. Greenwash just won't wash in that type of world.

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