S5E1: The Sins of Greenwashing and How to Avoid Them | with Scot Case

Being a sustainable consumer is hard. What's with all these products claiming to be "all natural" and "100% sustainable"? Who do we even believe? With sustainability being a more important factor that consumers take into consideration when shopping, companies are engaging in greenwashing. In 2007, Terrachoice published a report titled "The Six Sins of Greenwashing", in which Scot Case was a lead author. The six sins are as follows:


1) The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off -- cool, this product uses recycled content! oh wait, the manufacturing process isn't that energy efficient... the marketing of this product only talks about the recycled content it uses, which paints a misleading picture.


2) The Sin of No Proof -- companies can't claim that their product is "emissions-free" without any proof!


3) The Sin of Vagueness -- what exactly does "environmentally friendly" mean? without anything to back that claim up, it really means nothing.


4) The Sin of Irrelevance -- a CFC-free product! That would be cool, except it's irrelevant because CFCs have been banned for over 30 years already.


5) The Sin of Less of Two Evils -- marketing a product as "green", but distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the product as a whole (eg. reduced methane beef, organic tobacco, etc.)


6) Sin of Fibbing -- this is companies just straight up lying about their sustainability practices. not cool.


Scot Case is vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at the National Retail Federation. In this role, he leads NRF’s Sustainability Council and supports retailer efforts to use their businesses to make the world a better place for everyone.


Case has focused on the intersection of business, environmental and social concerns since the mid-1990s. Throughout Case’s career as a strategist, consultant and sustainability expert, he has worked with organizations including the White House, World Bank, Walmart, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson, Disney, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and federal, state and local governments around the world.


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Guest: Scot Case


Hosts/Reporters: Grace Zhang, Eppy Camacho


Audio Editor: Katherine Li


Music: Cali by Wataboi, u said it by Wataboi



TRANSCRIPT:


KATHERINE:

Everyone, welcome back to another episode of Operation climate podcast made by young people for young people where we talk about climate issues through conversations with cool people, and learn about how we as young people and students can take action in the climate movement. We have a very special set of episodes coming to you because they are all produced by high school students from around the world who are passionate about climate action and Climate Education. Today's episode was created by Grace and Eppy, and they brought to you an episode all about greenwashing. Let's get started.


GRACE:

Hi, everyone, I'm gracing and I'm here with my co host today.


EPPY:

Hi, I'm Abby Camacho.


GRACE:

I'm currently a rising freshman at Duke University and Eppy goes to Broughton High School. And what grade are you in Eppy?


EPPY:

I'm a rising junior in high school.


GRACE:

So Eppy how's your day today?


EPPY:

I'm a little frustrated because I went to the store earlier. And I spent a bunch of money on environmentally friendly products because I'm trying to be more environmentally conscious. But then I found out that they were all lying to me. And they're not actually very environmentally friendly.


GRACE:

Yeah, honestly, like seeing all those weird labels like eco friendly or 100%, sustainable or all natural quote unquote, like, it's hard for me to actually know which ones to believe and like, which brands I should trust and almost makes me feel like, I just want to give up on this whole environmental thing because everything feels kind of fake almost. So Digital's phenomenon actually has a name to it.


EPPY:

Yeah, I heard it's called greenwashing. That's actually what we're going to be talking about in today's episode, we're going to discuss what greenwashing is, is illegal and how we as environmentally conscious consumers can take action against it.


GRACE:

And to help us explain greenwashing. We have our guest speaker today, which is Mr. Scot Case. And he's actually the vice president for corporate social responsibility and sustainability at the National Retail Federation. And he's also done a lot of really great work with the US EPA. And they're environmentally labeling programs such as energy star, WaterSense, and safer choice, which you might have seen on some products in the stores, actually. And this just helps bring us more trustable certification labels as consumers.


EPPY:

Alright, let's get into the interview.


GRACE:

So Mr. case, would you be able to tell us a little bit about yourself?


SCOT:

Sure. So first of all, please, please call me Scot. And I have been playing in this sustainability space since the mid 1990s. And it has changed dramatically over that time frame. But everything I've done in my whole career has been at the intersection of business, environmental, and social issues. And so they all just kind of come together in very, very interesting ways, which led me eventually to my role at the National Retail Federation.


GRACE:

That's great. So we wanted to go ahead and start asking you a few questions about your report that you wrote,


EPPY:

What was your thought process when creating the six sins of greenwashing report?


SCOT:

Sure. So this the six sins and eventually seven sins of greenwashing was way back, I remember the year probably 2007 2008. And at that particular point in time, we were seeing another wave of interest in from consumers, consumers were more and more interested in buying more environmentally friendly or more sustainable products. And what was happening is we were seeing environmental and social claims pop up on all sorts of products. And when we looked at them, we weren't real sure exactly what some of the claims meant. So as we started making phone calls, like what the heck does this mean, we realized that some of the products that were putting these claims on the packaging, they weren't real clear what it meant. It was just some kind of like, hot topic. So they just started putting claims out there. And we didn't think that was right. So we started kind of documenting all of the different ways these claims might be misleading. And that led to the six sins of greenwashing, which eventually became the seven sins of greenwashing.


GRACE:

Could I ask really quickly what you mean by the seven sins of greenwashing, not just six.


SCOT:

Sure. So the initial report, we identified these six sins, so the sin of the hidden trade off, or no proof or vagueness Are irrelevance lying or fibbing, and then kind of the lesser of two evils. And we're using that to kind of say, Hey, these are the kinds of things that you shouldn't be doing. And we were encouraging people to use a small set of legitimate environmental labels. And what we found after the first reports, is that a lot of companies started making up their own labels. So we created this kind of seven sin, which was the sin of worshipping false labels.


GRACE:

So can companies just create their own labels? Or how does that work?


SCOT:

Yeah, so that's a great question, Grace, it turns out, companies can kind of do whatever they want to do. It is marketing. So you can make all sorts of marketing claims. And there are rules around what kinds of claims you can make and what kinds of claims you can't make. So one of the claims that's legit falls under the legal definition of puffery, which is a fun word that basically means I can run around saying, This is the greatest product ever. And everyone kind of knows. Yeah, that's not actually true. That's puffery. But the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, actually has rules around truth in advertising. And they even developed and then refined and revised their environmental marketing claims, in part because of the report that we released, saying, hey, there's a bunch of misleading claims out there. So there are some rules and some guidelines. But it's still kind of interesting because puffery allows you to say all sorts of interesting things. But that, you know, if you apply the scientific method to, you might think you don't really have proof that this is the greatest product ever.


GRACE:

With environmentalism trend growing since the late 1990s, particularly in marketing, what are your thoughts on companies using greenwashing to promote corporate social responsibility?


SCOT:

Hmm, great question. So there are lots of people that are worried about greenwashing. Right. So we should define it, what's greenwashing? It's making false or misleading claims about the environmental or social benefits of a product or service. So there's kind of two categories, I think. I think there is unintentional greenwashing. And then very deliberate or intentional greenwashing. The unintentional greenwashing is because a lot of these companies got caught by surprise. Like all of a sudden, younger consumers, the Gen Z, the younger millennials are really focused on this stuff. And some companies are like, we don't even know what it is. We don't know what it means. What are they asking? And they do just a little bit of research. And they go, Oh, we think we're doing that. And they start making claims. It's because they haven't quite done the research to really understand what consumers want and what consumers mean. So that's kind of unintentional, that I think companies then correct. Intentional greenwashing is the real scary kinds. So intentional greenwashing is when companies know that they're misleading people. And we think that's actually a relatively small piece of the overall puzzle. But there are certainly some examples that pop up, where companies are making claims they just know are not true.


GRACE:

Is that even illegal? With different countries having their own greenwashing policies, such as the US having their green guides from the Federal Trade Commission, and Australia having their green claims code? How can global brands be regulated?


SCOT:

So the big global companies actually understand that they're operating in a global market? So they actually put together pretty sophisticated understandings of what the rules are in each country where they operate. And so typically, what happens is, companies find the most stringent rules, and they try and meet those rules, knowing that if the rules are more stringent in the US, or if they're more stringent in Europe, if they meet the most stringent ones, they know they're kind of safe. So the challenge with something like greenwashing is there are some cultural aspects to it. So in the United States, the green guys that you referenced previous by the Federal Trade Commission, the basic rule is, the typical consumer has to understand what the claim means. Now, the typical consumer in the United States is different than the typical consumer in Germany or in the UK. So those kinds of rules get a little bit squishy, but it's still a pretty good global understanding of what's legitimate and what's not.


GRACE:

So you would think that companies could take advantage of being global and there being confusion between different greenwashing rules in each country. But as Mr. Scott mentioned, that's not the case. And they're actually being more regulated because they're trying to fit the most strict rules that are out there.


EPPY:

So we know that you've worked with different certification organizations like ENERGY STAR to provide some environmental standards for products? Can you explain the process a company must go through to certify their product?


SCOT:

Oh, Eppy, that's a really good question. So I mentioned earlier, I'm kind of old now. So when when I first started playing in this space, there were only a handful of environmental labels and standards and certifications. But over the years, it's really just exploded. So there are hundreds of different labels and standards and certifications now. So in general, the really good legitimate programs. Step one, those programs develop a very, very clear, concise, accurate and meaningful standard in an open public transparent process. So everyone has the opportunity to kind of define what the standard is, what it means and what it covers. So step one is having the standard. Step two, is that a company, then we'll say, hey, we think we have a product that meets that standard. And they will invite in an independent outside auditor to examine the product and compare it to the requirements of the standard. And if the product actually meets all of those requirements, you can then go to the next step, where a program like ENERGY STAR, or eco logo, or green guard, or Green Seal, will say, yes, the product meets the standard, they can now use our label or our certification mark on the product. So those are really good, legitimate ones. And what you have to do if you're in the store, or shopping online, and you see a product that has some sort of label on it, is you want to investigate that label to find out what it means and what the company had to do to get that label on their product.


GRACE:

So there's this product that I saw that had an Energy Star label, but their product wasn't listed on the actual ENERGY STAR website, are companies allowed to do that with their product,


SCOT:

They are not allowed to do that. So that's one of the things where, particularly with the Energy Star program, you have to meet that criteria before you can put the label on the product. So if someone is mistakenly or even deliberately putting the label on there, and it doesn't meet the criteria, that does actually open the company up to legal repercussions. So it's possible for someone a consumer to sue for false or misleading environmental claims. It's possible a retailer will say wait a minute, we've learned that product doesn't meet the criteria and just refuse to sell it anymore. And sometimes the contracts that someone a supplier has with a retailer might include all sorts of penalties for false or misleading claims. So there are absolutely legal repercussions. The challenge is not a lot of people are busy checking that stuff. So that's where as a consumer, you want to make sure you're doing your own homework. And if you do find something that doesn't seem right, let the retailer know like your friends, though, kind of shouted out that hey, this, this doesn't feel right. Because we can all kind of police these claims together.


GRACE:

That's really interesting that from both the consumer and retailer perspective, how this is an issue for everyone and how multiple people can try to work together and it's not just like these big brands that have to worry about it. So for a final set of questions for you today. We want to ask a little bit about what listeners can do.


EPPY:

What are some examples of certification labels to look out for when we go shopping?


SCOT:

Well, there are all sorts of good labels and certifications out there. So if you are shopping and you're looking for a more environmentally or more socially responsible product, um, step one is for you to as a consumer to know what you're looking for. And then find certifications that will validate that particular claim. So for example, I don't know maybe in the grocery store, you're particularly interested in organic food, then you would want to look for the US DEA, the US Department of Agriculture's organic label, because there are all sorts of rules that go along with that. If you are particularly concerned about climate change, and you're wanting to buy more energy efficient products, then the Energy Star label is the one you'd want to be looking for. So for most of these kinds of things, let's say your your big issue is making sure workers are paid fair living wages throughout the whole process. There are fair labor labels as well. Fair trade is the label. So there are lots of different labels to address different pieces of the puzzle. And some products actually are quite proud of the fact that they've earned multiple certifications, know what your issues are, and know which labels address those issues.


EPPY:

What are some easily accessible resources or websites that our listeners can check out about whether a product screen claims are true?


SCOT:

Hmm, that's good. So then there's, there's two sites you might want to check out. One of them is eco labels.org, and eco labels.org, tries to keep track of all the different environmental labels that are out there, and helps people understand what each of the different labels mean. The other piece of advice, I guess, is anytime you are shopping, look for labels, whether you're online or whether you're in store, look for the labels, and take the time to investigate what they mean. So if you are shopping online, and you see an environmental claim or a social claim, and then you kind of Google to find out what that is, and what it means. What it's doing is basically alerting people that you are paying attention to these issues. And it's a way of kind of voting with your dollars. If you're buying those kinds of products. It's voting with your dollars, but it's also voting with your time. Because if you're taking the time to investigate these kinds of issues, it's a trigger for people to understand this set of customers really cares about it. And once people realize that you care and you're checking up on him, then the system gets better and better and more and more people started adopting.


GRACE:

That is really interesting. It's a bit like a snowball effect or not so much top down, but more like bottom up, I guess.


EPPY:

What is the most important thing that young people should do? Or think about when it comes to greenwashing?


SCOT:

I think the number one thing is hold people accountable. So take advantage of the fact that social media exists, that you can actually praise companies, you can question companies, you can share what you have learned with others. And the thought is the more people are talking about these issues, again, the more important it is to everybody becomes more important for people to for brands and companies to adjust how they make products and what the materials are, but also becomes more important for them to be extra careful to make sure every claim they make is accurate and meaningful. So I think that's a use your voice and your voice exists on social media your voice exists. And just word of mouth with friends in with how you spend your money and how you spend your time.


GRACE:

That was definitely a really empowering note for us as young people when sometimes it might feel like we don't necessarily have a role to play in some of these bigger issues. So I was kind of looking into a little bit about consumer behavior and like how that affects these topics such as greenwashing. As consumers, we might have some cognitive biases. We just want to believe that a brand is good So then we sort of ignore the negative attributes. How do we fix that within ourselves when we might not even notice it? Since it's sort of subconscious?


SCOT:

Whoo, boy, you have been doing your research. These are all really, really good questions. And I think one of the things that I tell people who really started getting interested in these issues, is give yourself some time to breathe. Because you can't do this level of intense research and focus on absolutely every single purchase that you make, there's just simply not enough time. So find those products or brands that are most important to you, and focus your time and attention there. So if you are a fashionista, right, it's all about fashion and your clothing and stuff, focus your time and attention there. If you're really interested in electronics and computers, there's tons of environmental and social aspects there, focus your time and attention there, maybe you're a car person, and it's all about the automobiles, or housing and home improvement. So kind of pick your area and build your expertise in that section. So you don't feel like you have to do everything. And then the other piece is to kind of remember that companies are also on a learning curve. They're also learning how to be better and better. So even some of the most sustainable brands that are out there will be really honest about the fact they're still figuring this stuff out. So they have some products that are more sustainable than other products, because they're still trying to figure out how it all works. So look for those companies that are very transparent about what they're doing. They're very transparent about their struggles, hey, we would love this to be even more sustainable. But we haven't figured out how how we can package it in a way that will get to your house safely. So we're still trying to figure that out. So that kind of brutal honesty with me as a customer kind of makes me happy, it makes me feel a little bit better about shopping with those brands, even if they're not perfect. Because it turns out, no one's perfect, and it's kind of impossible to be perfect.


GRACE:

So one example that I can recall about companies being transparent, would be Larry's coffee, which is a local coffee roasting business. And as I recall, they had initially been using these biodegradable packaging, but they found out that it wasn't truly as good as it said it was. And so they promised to their customers that they're trying to find the most recyclable or compostable version of a bag. But in the meantime, they're still going to try to offer recyclable K cups. So this is, I think, a good example about how a business can be transparent about their sustainable policies and how their processes are working.


SCOT:

Absolutely great. So then the one thing I would add, is some companies kind of get involved, and they go, Wow, this is really hard. And they kind of just back away. If as a consumer, you still think it's important, hey, check out who are Larry's competitors in the coffee space? And have they figured it out? Because if too many people just like, oh, well, at least they're trying, I'm still gonna buy from them, then people aren't going to change as much. So this is where we can use the power of competition, to actually make sure that there's an incentive for everybody to find ways to continually improve.


GRACE:

Yeah, that's a really great point. Because I know, like incentives are something that's really important to the environmental movement, because sometimes people can't just be persuaded by, you know, saviors sort of thing.


SCOT:

And what happens, you know, and I'm looking at you and Eppy online here, if you become known as someone who's really doing your own research, maybe in the fashion world, or the electronics world, or whatever, your friends will turn to you and go, Oh, well, they've done the research and they say this is okay. And so you're actually saving other people some time. So you again, that's part of your, the power of your voice is the ability to influence others, when they see that you take these issues seriously, and that you're pushing yourself and the companies and the brands do better. I'm always excited when people are focusing on these issues, because it turns out those big companies and those big brands, actually do you care what you think. So make sure you're out there telling them


GRACE:

thanks so much for listening to this episode. We really enjoyed discussing greenwashing with Mr. Scot Case from the National Retail Federation. So here are some three quick tips to remember for combating greenwashing as a consumer. Firstly, you want to ask yourself, What products do you care about, as Scott mentioned, maybe you're a fashionista trying to find sustainably produced clothing. Or maybe you care deeply about fair and ethical conditions for farmers,


EPPY:

you're also going to want to look for labels tied to the products that you want to focus on. If you're looking to buy organic food, you'd want to look for the USDA label. Or if you're looking for energy efficient appliances, you want to look for the Energy Star label. And you also want to do your research. So you can browse websites like eco label index.org, to verify different labels if you're not really sure what they mean. And you can also look into the brands that you want to buy from to see like if they're transparent with you, and if they really are saying what you think they're saying.


GRACE:

And I don't know about you, Fe, but I definitely feel more confident as a shopper going into a store and trying to figure out what brands I can trust and what labels I should look for. And just not feeling overwhelmed by trying to be as environmentally conscious as I can.


EPPY:

Oh, yeah, for sure. I feel like I can walk into a store and leave knowing that I'm buying something that is actually eco friendly, or whatever it says it is.


KATHERINE:

Thanks so much for tuning into this episode. We hope you join us next time and make sure to subscribe and follow us on our socials to stay updated about future episodes and any other future initiatives. We are @operationclimate on Instagram, @opclimate on Twitter and @operationclimate on TikTok. Head to our website to get a full transcript of this episode with links that you can explore to learn more about the topic that we covered today. And we'll see you next time.


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