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Not As Green As They Claim To Be

by Beth Daley

Just how green should you feel driving the new Chevy Tahoe hybrid sport utility vehicle?

The eight-passenger vehicle is plastered with "hybrid" labels. An automobile magazine panel that included the executive director of The Sierra Club named it the "Green Car of the Year."

But the Tahoe gets only about 20 miles per gallon - not much better than the nonhybrid Honda Pilot SUV, which also seats eight. The celebrated Toyota Prius gets around 46 miles per gallon.

"How a 6,000-pound behemoth can be the green car of the year is beyond me," said David Champion, director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Division. "It's a marketing exercise rather than reality."

As the world goes eco-friendly - even eco-vodka is coming to martini bars - it's not clear how much environmental good will come from all the green products consumers are buying. Companies regularly tout something as green when it is not even good for the environment - it might just be less harmful than a competitor's product or than one the company sold previously.

Few companies out and out lie, but they often use vague terms with no defined meaning, such as "earth friendly," or tout an environmental benefit while leaving out the environmental harm their product can cause.

Consumers in the United States are expected to double their spending on green products and services in the next year to an estimated $500 billion, according to an annual consumer survey by Landor Associates. Turn on the television or walk down any store aisle, and it's impossible to escape products and services being sold as greener: potato chips, household cleaners, garage doors - even trash hauling.

One marketing consultant calls the phenomenon "shop for salvation." It began in earnest with rising public concern about global warming, though marketers now also highlight other environmental benefits. Still, green buying won't come close to cutting emissions 50 percent worldwide, the amount that the leading scientific authority on global warming says will be needed by 2050 to avert the worst consequences.

Marketers, some environmentalists and marketing specialists say, are merely tapping into people's desire to feel like they're saving the earth - but not sacrificing their lifestyle.

"That's the paradox," said Frederic Brunel, associate professor of marketing at Boston University. "Most people agree green solutions are better than less green solutions, but how green? You could have the green McMansion with energy efficiency, but well, the house is still 6,000 square feet. . . . We need goals and standards."

The marketing of faux green products is now so widespread that there is a term for the practice - "greenwashing."

Few products have raised more objections than Nestlé's new single-use "eco-shape" water bottle. The bottle, which uses 30 percent less plastic than similar products, is touted by Nestlé-owned Poland Spring as "doing our part."

But eco-bloggers say there is no need for bottles at all. They say the energy that goes into creating and transporting the bottles is wasteful and most recyclable bottles end up in landfills. Taking water can also draw down local water tables. Drink tap water, they urge.

A Nestlé Waters North America spokeswoman said bottled water is healthier than other bottled beverages. The company studied the life cycle of the water bottle and found the best way to reduce carbon emissions was to reduce the amount of plastic, said Jane Lazgin, director of corporate communications.

Another example: Simple Green, the popular household cleaner that bills itself as nontoxic and the "safer alternative" to other cleaners. But one of Simple Green's key ingredients, butyl cellosolve, is the same toxic solvent found in some traditional all-purpose cleaners. The label even cautions users not to "dispose of . . . near storm drains, oceans, lakes or streams."

A Simple Green spokeswoman said the company stands behind its claim that the product is nontoxic, but acknowledged it does contain trace amounts of the solvent. She said the company is launching an all-natural brand of household cleaners to respond to consumer desires.

The Federal Trade Commission, which has the authority to investigate false marketing claims, says the increasing use of environmental marketing has prompted the agency to move up a review of its "green guides," which outline general principles and definitions of environmental claims. Some terms, such as "sustainable" and "carbon offset," weren't widely used the last time the guides were updated, in 1998.

The agency has not issued any decisions about green marketing in the past five years, a spokesman said, and he was unable to say how many complaints about the topic the FTC has received in recent years.

There is virtually "zero enforcement," said Scot Case of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, a consulting company based in Philadelphia and Ottawa. Last year, his company conducted a study that found that 99 percent of 1,018 green advertising claims of everyday consumer products could be misleading. The products were not identified, but the report did highlight examples, such as shampoos claiming to be "certified organic" on their label, though TerraChoice could find no organic standard for shampoo, or garden insecticides being promoted as "chemical-free," though even water can be considered a chemical.

The government "needs to require anyone making a green claim to provide proof of the accuracy and relevance of the claim," Case said.

Some countries are taking more aggressive action. Last year, the British Advertising Standards Authority, an independent watchdog and regulating agency, told Shell to pull magazine ads in that country that showed flowers coming out of smokestacks, because the images suggested the company was using most of its carbon dioxide emissions to grow flowers, when that was not true. The board also told Lexus to pull an ad that boasted an SUV was "High Performance. Low Emissions. Zero Guilt," in part because the spot erroneously indicated that the car had little or no impact on the environment. A report the British group last month said the number of complaints about environmental ads increased almost fivefold in the past year to 561.

Many customers, however, seem all too happy to trust companies' claims. According to a survey released this year by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and Cone LLC, a Boston-based brand strategy firm, about 47 percent of respondents said they trusted companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging, and 45 percent said they believed companies are accurately communicating information about their impact on the environment.

Yet marketing specialists say companies can mislead consumers in many ways - including by selectively using information. Last year, Gianfranco Zaccai, president and CEO of the innovation and design consulting firm Continuum, headquartered in West Newton, was called to task by two popular environmental blogs, treehugger.com and inhabitat.com. Zaccai, whose company helped develop the Swiffer, wrote a BusinessWeek column praising the cleaning instrument, which uses disposable sheets. Zaccai said the Swiffer is a sustainable product in part because it allows people to stop using a mop and wasting millions of gallons of water. But the blogs said he was a bit disingenuous: He didn't discuss the disposable, chemical-laden sheets that would be thrown into landfills.

Later, in a question-and-answer piece on inhabitat.com, Zaccai wrote that he believed the Swiffer is still the best environmental choice. "Of course, the Swiffer has some environmental impact," he said. "That single sheet of paper goes into the trash."

As for the Tahoe hybrid, Don Butler, executive director for truck marketing for Chevrolet, said the vehicle is for people who are going to buy plus-size SUVs anyway. But now, he said, they have an option to get much better gas mileage - on par with the Toyota Camry.

"It's not like this is the one silver bullet," Butler said. The company is working on many other energy-efficient vehicles, he added.

Ron Cogan, president and CEO of Green Car Journal and greencar.com, which declared the Tahoe the Green Car of the Year, said the vehicle was chosen in part because the technology the company used would have reverberations throughout the industry. Carl Pope, executive director of The Sierra Club, said he deplores the fact that so many people drive SUVs, but voted for the Tahoe because it was a "category changer."

For others, however, the idea that a large SUV could ever be considered green is unfathomable.

"I know how this goes. The manufacturers say, 'We know, we know, but the consumer wants it,' " said Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But I say, where is the adult here? This is a lot of feel good stuff."

© 2008 The Boston Globe

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