A Darker Shade of Green

August 7, 2007

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As demand for environmentally preferable purchasing increases, "greenwashing" — the practice of misleading purchasers about the environmental benefits of a product or service — is reemerging as a key concern.

As government contracting site GovPro.com noted earlier this year, "Every purchase has environmental impacts" — beginning with the selection and collection of the raw materials, to transportation of those same raw materials to the factory, to transforming the raw materials into the product, to transporting the product to the end user, to operating the product, through removing the product when it is no longer useful.

Many common purchasing practices, such as specifying energy- or fuel-efficient products, or buying products locally, are already helping efforts to reduce threats to the environmental. Plant-based products generally have less of an impact than petroleum-based products of similar size and weight shipped similar distances. And Inside Supply Management recently suggested purchasers and supply managers ask of sourced products: "Is it easily disassembled and recyclable?"

These are all noteworthy and admirable practices in today's business world.

Yet purchasers should also beware of "greenwashing" — the practice of inflating a company's or its product's environmental benefits, as GovPro defines it.

"The practice appears to be growing and purchasers are learning that they must carefully examine all environmental claims to ensure the environmental benefits they seek are reflected in the products and services they buy," according to the June GovPro feature Beware of Greenwashing: Not All Environmental Claims are Meaningful.

Scot Case, an internationally recognized expert on responsible sourcing, founding board member of the International Green Purchasing Network and Director of Procurement Strategy at the North American Green Purchasing Initiative writes:

The growing demand for more environmentally preferable goods and services has led many manufacturers to find cost-effective ways of improving their environmental performance and the environmental performance of their offerings ... Unfortunately, not all manufacturers have made the investments necessary to provide more environmentally preferable products. In order to compete in a market that demands "green" products, some manufacturers have resorted to creative advertising instead.

When presented with an environmental claim about a product or service, purchasers can determine the accuracy and relevancy of the claim by asking the following:

What type of environmental claim is being made? Is the claim specific or general? If specific, what other product characteristics will influence the total impact on the environment and health? "While incredibly valuable, single-attribute environmental claims do not address other potentially important human health and environmental issues," writes Case.

Is a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol available for review? What process was used to verify a product actually meets a standard or passed testing requirements? "If a manufacturer cannot provide a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol, one might suspect that the claim is only a marketing ploy," Case notes. "When manufacturers do provide a copy of the standard, review it carefully to determine if it references appropriate national or international environmental and performance standards."

Who developed the environmental standard or testing protocol, and how was it developed? What organization developed the environmental standard or testing requirement, and was it done in an open, public, transparent process? Records of the standard development process should be available for review. "The most trusted standards are those developed in a consensus-based process by broad stakeholder groups," according to Case. "Purchasers tend to be less trustful of standards developed by an individual manufacturer or trade association fearing potential conflicts of interest."

What process is used to verify that products actually meet the standard or passed the testing requirements? "There are a variety of procedures to verify that a product meets a standard." Some product-standard-verifying procedures include: 1) self-certification; 2) self-certification with random audits; 3) independent third-party certification; and 4) independent third-party certification with on-site audits.

As increasingly more businesses make "green" products and services available, others are inflating, misleading or flat out lying about the environmental performance of their products or services — bad news for purchasers. As Case aptly notes, though, "The most powerful tool in the professional purchaser's arsenal is the power to ask good questions."

Resources

Beware of Greenwashing: Not All Environmental Claims Are Meaningful by Scot Case GovPro.com, June 2007

Fighting Global Warming: Government Purchasers Play an Important Role by Scot Case GovPro.com, February 2007

Sourcing for Sustainability (Reg. req'd) by Mary Siegfried Inside Supply Management, March 2007

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