Deservedly or not, industry these days is accused incessantly of greenwashing—"the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources...a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing." (Wikipedia entry)

It's not surprising that industry isn't trusted to make truthful green marketing claims and provide information that is credible, straightforward, and useful.

Why? There are several reasons—not least the following:

  • Industry has a long history of polluting the water, land, and air.
  • The environmental benefit is often intangible—we can't see the fumes that don't come out of the power plant when we use a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).
  • The science of making claims is imprecise; for instance, packages may be recyclable in theory but not in practicality.
  • And consumers don't know a lot about environmental issues. So it's easy for manufacturers to play on consumers' good intentions to recycle and cut down on waste.

So how do we restore trust in industry's green marketing claims and eco-labels? Can industry get its act together and bolster its credibility on its own? Or does it need help from other groups?

Several candidates offer different levels of credibility and suitability: NGOs, environmental groups, and government are obvious choices; product-safety giant Underwriters Laboratories (UL), for example, has over 100 years of credibility vouching for the safety of electrical products; Good Housekeeping just launched a green version of its well-known seal; and, of course, there's Consumer Reports.

At the Sustainable Brands '09 conference in Monterey, California, in early June, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA—creators of the Energy Star label for energy efficiency and the Design for Environment seal for cleaning products), UL (which recently launched its environmental-claims-certification service), and Air Quality Systems' GreenGuard (indoor-air-quality certifiers) met for my annual panel on eco-labeling.

The speakers presented their programs, put forth data supporting their own credibility, and left it to the 350 participants at this sustainable-branding and green-marketing summit to decide whom they could trust to make green marketing claims, and why.

The Participants Weigh in

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Jacquelyn A. Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., advisers to industry on green marketing and eco-innovation. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation. Contact her via (