More and more of us are aware of the threats facing our planet, and we spend our money accordingly. Green consumers are exercising their choice to reject products that are harmful to the environment in favor of those that are ecofriendly. It’s a simple way to do our bit. The only problem is that retailers know that and greenwashing – deceptively spinning products as en vironmentally sound – is an all too common scam, because green business is big business.

The word ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmental activist Jay Westervelt way back in 1986, in his exposé of hotels cashing in on claims that they were environmentally friendly. If anything, the problem has only got bigger since, as green consumables have hit the market in ever-increasing numbers. One report suggested it had gone up by almost 80% between 2007 and 2009. With formal incentives and rewards for green business, there are always plenty willing to exaggerate or fake it in order to get ahead and boost their PR.

Greenwashing extends beyond making overblown or just plain false claims about the ecofriendliness of products. Consumers want to know that companies are green in their broader operations, not just in respect of the products they sell. It also applies to things other than consumer products. Politicians are well known for spinning policy as ‘green’ when it actually isn’t – as with George W. Bush’s ‘Clear Skies Act’, that critics argue actually increases permissible levels of air pollution. Another scam is verbal trickery to make toxic things sound less toxic than they actually are.

A lot of greenwashing boils down to plain old false advertising, which in theory is illegal and subject to industry sanctions. Many countries have brought in measures to curtail greenwashing, including the ability to impose hefty fines and make companies put the record straight. That’s easier said than done, and easier for some products than others. It’s often down to consumer organizations, environmental groups and bloggers to draw attention to false and misleading claims about the green credentials of products, companies and policies.

Ultimately it’s still down to us as individual purchasers to check out the ecofriendliness of stuff we buy. It’s always worth checking out the track record of makers and retailers. There are plenty of legitimate products and sellers with solid reputations for good green business practices. Online resources can be very helpful, so it’s worth doing some research. Greenwashing culprits are rated, named and shamed on a variety of websites, such as the University of Oregon’s Greenwashing Index.

So don’t be fooled by those images of nature on the packaging or the eyecatching claims on labels. Wising up to the tricks is the best way for you to get the genuine green article, and vote with your feet (or wallet) about fake green business outfits that try to deceive us.

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