Using Environmental Awareness to Better Research Green Initiatives

Nowadays it seems like every company is jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon. But for every altruistic company, there’s a firm releasing inaccurate info to look more responsible than it actually is. This dishonesty is also known as greenwashing, and it’s up to you and your environmental awareness to get to the bottom of what’s worth supporting.

Examples of Greenwashing

“Eco-friendly hotels” may be quick to boast their new “green” accommodations. However, their idea of being a property with environmental awareness may just mean they advise guests to reuse their towels. The same hotels may avoid educating guests about the local environment, use toxic chemicals for cleaning, build over natural habitats and forgo even basic recycling programs. Yet because they implemented one tiny green initiative, a hotel may be quick to dub itself an “eco-hotel.”

Another example: ExxonMobil (XOM). Right on its website, XOM talks about its collaboration with the Land Trust Alliance and how it repurposes sites whenever possible. Keep in mind this is the same company that’s being investigated for potential human rights violations resulting from climate change.

So how can you decipher true from false? It helps to look at the big picture when it comes to environmental issues. Always question the impact your actions will have down the line. Driving to work each day might not seem like a big deal, but when you do it every day, that carbon footprint can really add up (which is why carpooling and bike-sharing are green initiatives you can definitely get behind).

How to Spot the Fakes

Don’t believe everything you read, as many organizations launch “green initiatives” that don’t quite penetrate the issue they’ve taken up. You’ll see deceiving forest-colored websites filled with buzzwords like “green” and “eco.” When trying to get the scoop on what’s happening behind the scenes, here are some signs to look for on brand websites:

  • A (thorough) sustainability page. Responsible initiatives may include a detailed list of what they’re specifically doing to help the environment.
  • Verbiage used without any clear definition. Think “natural” or “sustainable” without any supporting evidence or incentive.
  • Comparisons to competition, especially when the competition doesn’t make similar claims that would warrant comparing.
  • Citing studies that were sponsored by the company itself (you can usually tell by the footer of the document).
  • Affiliated brands that aren’t green. Some companies make green offshoots solely to help their public appearance.

Beyond their own site, read consumer reviews. Platforms like TripAdvisor and Consumer Reports allow consumers to share feedback that, although biased at times, can expose common complaints across multiple comments.

Reporting Progress

Organizations advertising green initiatives should be measuring their progress and offering public reports to back up their claims. For example, when discussing the positive effects of 8 million American homes installing solar panels, SolarCity offered an Impact Report to back up the news. It isn’t enough to have a company tell you its green initiative is worth supporting. You need to look for the evidence.

Awards and Affiliations

Unfortunately, companies can make up their own award schemes and affiliated networks, which is why it’s helpful to look for well-known trusted certifications to ensure their accolades are the real deal. In many cases a seal is key to denoting legitimacy. Think back to hotels: Green Seal and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) are big-time credits to look for in the lodging industry. Still others can use words like “organic” in their names to mislead consumers into thinking their products are certified organic, which is why official certification by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is a distinguishing factor.

Applying Your Environmental Awareness

The more people who have a sharp environmental awareness, the more likely they won’t be duped into supporting empty causes. It’s up to you to make smarter choices that positively affect the environment.

And if you do find a misleading green initiative, take action. Speak to journalists and whistleblow with impunity. Don’t hesitate to contact the Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to file a complaint, as well. Remember when Volkswagen promoted diesel as an eco-alternative to gasoline? It sounded great until it leaked that its software was tricking emissions tests and the developer was actually causing excessive pollution. The FTC fought for those affected by the lie and won.

While not all FTC complaints get handled to this degree, it’s worth noting the group is revamping its policies on eco-marketing to hopefully benefit consumers in the future. Support truly green initiatives to have a truly positive impact on the planet.

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