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Greenwashing: Sustainability’s Dirty Little Secret

Within the graphic arts community, the term greenwashing (using unsubstantiated, nonscientific environmental claims—often not true—to promote a product or service) can cause an avalanche of righteous indignation.

And for good reason: there is growing conventional wisdom that if you distribute something digitally, it is more environmentally friendly than distributing it on paper. From for-profit corporations to non-profits, to competing digital alternatives, print is being used as a foil to advance a paperless transformation, says Don Carli, senior research fellow with The Institute for Sustainable Communication, a nonprofit which looks to bring awareness and action to the sustainable use of print and digital media.

However, like pretty much every issue encountered in life as an adult, the issue is far from black and white.

Here’s the situation, in a nutshell: On the one hand, we have the companies and organizations that stand to benefit, from a financial perspective, from a transformation to a paperless workflow. These include Internet-based companies that want consumers to use their services (more about that later) to utilities, banks, etc., that would much rather not spend the money required to mail a bill or letter to their customers.

On the other, we have the graphic arts companies—the printers, paper mills, and software and hardware vendors that benefit from the ongoing use of paper products to deliver messages to consumers.

In the murky middle is the actual environmental impact that occurs to produce an email message vs. a paper bill, for example. It is here where greenwashing’s greatest sin(s) can be found; without scientific-based information and a real understanding of the products or services life cycle, no one benefits.

According to Carli, Phil Riebel, president and COO of Two Sides U.S., Inc., and others involved in the discussion, digital technologies and paper each have an impact on the environment. Different impacts, but each can be potentially as bad (or good) as the other, depending on how the individual companies, as well as industries as a whole, respond to that impact.

“In large part we don’t readily understand the life cycle of the products and services that we are talking about,” says Carli.

Google Goes for the Jugular

Take for example, Google’s January launch of its “Go Paperless in 2013,” campaign, a major initiative executed with multiple Internet service partners to highlight the “benefits of going paperless.”

Google’s use of pictures of trees and U.S. recycling data in its promotional material is a good example of greenwashing, used primarily to promote its service, without substantial data, says Riebel. Two Sides, for the record, is an organization created to promote paper and printing’s side in the environmental argument.

Furthermore, says Riebel, all of Google’s co-partners in the campaign have a major financial stake in consumers’ abandoning print and paper to use their technology: HelloFax, an online fax service; HelloSign, an e-signature service; Expensify, an online expense reporting service; Xerox, an online business accounting service; and Fujitsu, the ScanSnap scanner manufacturer.

In a letter to Google board chairman Eric Schmidt, Riebel highlights the search engine’s own impact on the environment, such as “100 searches on Google is equivalent to burning a 60 watt light bulb for 20 minutes, using 0.03Kwh electricity and 20 gms of carbon dioxide.”

Two Sides’ letter to Google did result in some wording change, but the fight continues. Meanwhile, Verdigris, the environmental awareness initiative, is urging the paper and printing industry to “Go Google-less.”

Even as those in the digital arena are being called out for their unsubstantiated claims, printers, too, should also be aware that their environmental claims need science behind them. “The sword cuts both ways,” says Carli.

If a printer—or anyone in the graphic arts, for that matter—makes a claim, they should be specific and make sure they have credible substantiation in existence prior to making the claim.

“If I were a printer,” says Riebel, “I would be aware of environmental marketing guidelines. I would make sure that I have proof coming from responsible sources, to back up any claims. If the paper you are using is labeled as eco-friendly, make sure that its attributes are well-certified and based on a third-party proof. Deal with responsible companies that have a solid environmental performance.”

As Riebel notes, one way of insuring your claims are accurate is via third-party certification; another is by following ISO Standard 14021, which lists specific requirements for self-declared environmental claims.

Tree-free Paper Joins the Fray

One marketing mistake Riebel is seeing right now within the graphic arts community involves the promotion of paper products that are tree-free, made with recycled fiber or agricultural waste. “Companies making these products are suggesting that they are better for the environment than paper made with trees,” says Riebel. “But much of the paper in use today is made from trees that are coming from managed forests, and that are responsibly sourced.”

The marketing departments that are making these claims are stepping into an area that resembles greenwashing, says Riebel.

“We should be promoting all the different fibers as a sustainable alternative; we shouldn’t be pinning tree-free fibers against wood,” says Riebel. “One product is not necessarily better for the environment—it depends so much on the life cycle of these products. Plus, it sends the wrong message that using trees are a bad thing. If you get your paper from a responsible source, from a company that is using a well-managed, sustainable forest, if you get paper with the highest level of certification, then you are helping to promote the longevity of the forest and of trees.”

Two Sides is leading the charge to stop U.S. companies from pinning one product against another. “When you make environmental claims in your promotional materials or ads, you need factual, science-based evidence,” says Riebel. “Most companies don’t have that information. You are not even allowed to use pictures of trees, frogs, leaves—anything that may suggest that it is better for the environment.”

According to Carli, the printing industry needs to stop being timid in addressing systemic fraud in practices that are inflammatory. “Print has enough of a challenge to compete on its merits; it makes matters worse if it allows media competitors to step out of the line that the law provides to assure the greater good,” says Carli. “Consumers don’t win if there is misleading advertising.”

Adds Carli, “Until recently, there wasn’t any focus on a company’s use of environmental benefit claims that were not specific and substantiated. It’s easy to say ‘switch to electronic billing and save a tree,’ especially if there is little fear of consequence whether or not it is true. Banks, utilities, cable t.v. operations—all encourage consumers to switch to electronic billing, with their primary argument that if you switch to electronic billing, you will save a tree. They do this both implicitly—showing pictures of a tree or a leaf in their email pleas—or directly, saying ‘If you do this, you will have done something good for the environment.’”

Now, however, there are government guidelines, issued by the Federal Trade Commission, addressing these kinds of broad, general, non-specific environmental claims and the widespread substantiation of these claims.

The Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, also known as the Green Guides, offer rules to the marketer regarding advertising, promotional material, and all other forms of marketing. It specifically calls to task companies that make general, broad, unspecific claims regarding the environmental attributes of a package, product or service.

Claims have to be substantiated with credible and scientific evidentiary support. Brands making these non-credible claims are subject to a series of consequences, including fines and other actions by the FTC that will not only cause an advertiser embarrassment but can also leave the brand open to litigation. Challenges to a brand’s advertising claims can be made by literally anyone who believes that the advertising could be construed as misleading or false by consumers.

Additionally, false or misleading ads—including those touting environmental claims—can be reported to the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division. If a company receives a complaint, the BBB will assemble an expert panel that will review whether or not the alleged ad could be perceived as misleading to consumers.

“It’s a confidential process,” explains Carli, “that doesn’t necessarily engage attorneys. There are no fines or legal findings or convictions.” However, if found “guilty,” the advertiser will receive a letter from the NAD requesting that the false claims in the ads be changed. Carli reports that there is a better than 90 percent compliance by those receiving a letter from the NAD, which does have a standing agreement with the FTC to turn over recalcitrant advertisers to the government agency.