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The Sydney Morning Herald: When truth comes out in wash

Wednesday January 23, 2008

It is difficult to separate fact from green marketing fiction, writes Steve Dow.

It is not easy washing green, or drying for that matter. Consider the LG combined steam washer and dryer promoted with full-page advertisements in glossy magazines that promise water savings if you install and use this $2900 product.

Yet the manufacturer’s claims are a “blatant greenwash”, according to the 2007 shonky awards bestowed last month by Choice, the magazine of the Australian Consumers Association. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”.

While it is true the LG washer-dryer uses a comparatively low 107 litres of water for a maximum nine-kilogram washing load, the company’s advertising failed to mention that the condenser dryer requires 74 litres of water for a maximum five-kilogram drying load. In fact, drying can use more water than washing in the machine because a full load cannot be dried in one hit, Choice found.

The extra water is required during drying to condense the steam, which then goes down the drain. “While this is true for all washer-dryer combos, we didn’t come across other ads that try to greenwash consumers so blatantly,” Choice said – although the association noted the water efficiency labelling system was partly to blame, and called for washer-dryer labels to show total water use.

LG Electronics Australia issued a statement saying the product qualified for a four-star energy efficient rating and that the company was “focused on energy conservation and water usage”.

But greenwashing goes beyond the white goods industry. Over the past 18 months Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern report have propelled a new mass market of consumers seeking environmentally friendly products.

Corporations are trying to seize a sales edge by liberally adding eco adjectives to their brands such as “recyclable”, “biodegradable”, “phosphate-free” or “energy-efficient”, while seeking to be “carbon-neutral”.

But who is testing these green claims? In October the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission fired a warning shot, hinting that several companies were being investigated and declaring that there had been a steadily increasing number of complaints about green marketing.

A commissioner, John Martin, said: “Whether a business is promoting their ‘green’ motor vehicles, ‘green’ flights or ‘green’ toilet paper, the Trade Practices Act 1974 consumer protection provisions apply.”

The commission refuses to name those it is investigating. However, several companies have been in the news over their green claims. In August Woolworths withdrew its Select brand toilet paper, which it had been claimed was made using sustainable forest fibre but whose Indonesian source was found to have failed environmental and social equity tests.

Meanwhile, Saab has raised eyebrows with claims made in its advertisements that “every Saab is green” because the car maker promises to plant trees for every car sold. The commission said last week that it was pursuing this case in the Federal Court, taking action against GM Holden, which supplies and markets Saab vehicles in Australia.

The problem for the commission is that the greening of consumerism is international, raising doubts about the impact Australian law can have. Multinational companies, which are often based outside Australia, determine their products’ global marketing strategies. Australians are also exposed through the internet and imported publications to green claims published overseas on products sold here.

In November Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority criticised a newspaper advertisement by Royal Dutch Shell showing the outline of an oil refinery with flowers sprouting from its chimneys. The ads, which ran in newspapers in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, were headlined: “Don’t throw anything away. There is no away.” Part of the ad read: “We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers, and our waste sulfur to make super-strong concrete.”

But the British advertising watchdog found Royal Dutch Shell’s ads were likely to mislead readers. “In the absence of qualification, most readers were likely to interpret … that Shell used all, or at least the majority, of their waste CO2 to grow flowers, whereas the actual amount was a very small proportion, when compared to the global activities of Shell,” the ruling said.

In a statement defending the ad, designed by the agency J. Walter Thompson, Shell said: “We believe that the advertisement is a creative and striking way of drawing attention to the problem of waste disposal.”

In late November the University of Technology, Sydney held a sustainable business forum called “Ecoconsumerism – Oxymoron?” Cameron Tonkinwise, the former UTS director of design studies, says there are companies that make blatantly false greenwashing claims. “But I think quite often companies are making claims they don’t know are false or partial.”

The basic problem is establishing an environmental claim to be false, Tonkinwise says. Sustainability is always a matter of degree, so “all environmental claims are going to be somewhat rubbery or political”. He says: “The point the public is not smart enough in getting at the moment is that you’re not going to be more sustainable by buying more sustainable products. You are going to be more sustainable by living more sustainably, and buying products is actually a very small percentage of that.

“You can buy a green washing powder and you can buy an energy-efficient, green-star-rated washing machine, but the most sustainable thing you can do is wash less.”

Consumers are now more environmentally aware – last year a GlobeScan survey of 23 countries, including Australia, showed 90 per cent of people knew they had to change their buying behaviour.

But their choices are overridden by confusion, convenience, cost and habit, says Kate Norris, the Australian Consumers Association’s sustainable consumption project officer. Companies’ misleading green claims exacerbate the problem, she says.

Consumers don’t know how to compare products, Norris says.

“If one product says environmentally friendly and another says sustainable or carbon-neutral, which one should they go for?”

Murray Hogarth, a strategy project leader with the environmental consultancy Ecos Corporation in Newtown, points to the Shell and Saab examples, but says: “None of this represents an argument for rejecting the greening of consumerism. It is just another battle to make sure the market gets it right.

“We want good companies with good products to be rewarded richly, and bad companies – laggards with bad products – to be really punished in the marketplace, because that’s what will drive change.”

The commission, Hogarth says, has the power to name, shame and prosecute. This needs to be supplemented by strengthened “commercial regulation”, with retailers such as Coles and Woolworths putting pressure on the companies in the supply chain to put a “carbon story” on the label of their products for consumers to make informed buying judgments.

He warns: “Nobody wants to see people making megabucks out of greenwashing with completely fraudulent products, but equally if we’re too perfectionist about it then a whole lot of players will think it’s all too hard.” and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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