Going green used to be straightforward. Organic tomatoes, a cloth tote bag and a Sierra Club membership were all it took.
Lately, though, would-be greenthusiasts find themselves beset. New brands keep crashing the green party. Unexpected joiners like Chevrolet, pioneer of the iconic and enormous Suburban SUV, clamor for green consideration. Eco-conscious commerce even extends to Christmas, with how-to's on green holiday parties and guides to sustainable gift-giving.
In an increasingly crowded marketplace with few firm guidelines, decoding "Earth friendly" has never seemed so difficult.
"This is leading to a growing cynicism among consumers about green claims," said Hank Stewart, vice president of strategic communications at the New York-based ad firm Green Team. "We're seeing a lot of confusion about what's legitimate and what's not."
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced an earlier-than-expected revision of its 9-year-old "Green Guides," but the first hearings on those don't start until early next year.
What's an eco-conscientious consumer to do?
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Green products have sprouted on store shelves faster than the ability of most shoppers to separate green fact from green fiction. Seven in 10 American consumers cast a skeptical eye on green claims, reports marketing research giant Ipsos Reid.
The FTC sets some guidelines for claims like recycled content, recyclability, degradability and ozone safety. But the commission last updated its "Green Guides" in 1998, long before the rise of carbon offsets. Responding to the green barrage of claims like "renewable" and "sustainable," the commission decided to revise the guides a year earlier than planned.
"People want to buy better products," said Scot Case, vice president with TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm. "But the problem is that many manufacturers don't yet have better products to sell, so they're putting meaningless claims on the packaging."
His firm examined more than 1,000 products that made green claims. TerraChoice published its findings in "Six Sins of Greenwashing," enumerating the ways products apply a veneer of "greenwash" over a not-so-green product. The six sins: hidden trade-offs, absence of proof, vagaries, irrelevance, fibbing and the sin of the lesser of two evils.
"It has become too corrupt," said James B. Twitchell, a professor of literature and advertising at the University of Florida. "Green has become puke green."
Twitchell likened "buying" green to trying to buy your way to heaven. Buying a phosphate-free cleaner takes less effort than biking to work. Green marketing isn't selling an environmental revolution, he said. It's selling environmental absolution.
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Getting to the goods behind the green can be tricky. Take Chevrolet's 2-month-old ad campaign "Gas Friendly to Gas Free." The campaign features a child hugging a tree. Can't get greener than that. Or can you?
The campaign brags that Chevy offers seven vehicles that get 30 mpg or better on the highway. True. But the automaker also offers seven vehicles that get 20 mpg or less on the highway. Its hydrogen fuel-cell powered Equinox and the Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid, aren't yet on the market.
Terry Rhadigan, Chevy spokesman, defends the campaign as signaling a new direction for Chevy. "We do not think it is a passing fad," said Rhadigan. "It's a new way of doing business."
Case, of TerraChoice, said a green brand doesn't mean a green product. Buying the Chevrolet Suburban, with its top 19 mpg highway rating, isn't a green choice just because Chevrolet is testing fuel cells on other vehicles.
"If consumers read a product and they can't answer the simple question 'What makes this product green?' then it's probably greenwashed," Case advised. "Don't buy it."
Of course, as Twitchell pointed out, not buying it may be the greenest thing you can do.
Chevy's "Gas Friendly to Gas Free"
A Chevy Green Claim: The hybrid, two-wheel-drive 2008 Chevy Tahoe gets 21 mpg city, and 22 mpg highway, the same city mileage as the four-cylinder Toyota Camry.
The Goods behind the Green:
-The two-wheel-drive hybrid Tahoe outperforms the traditional Tahoe by 7 mpg city and 3 mpg highway.
-The hybrid Tahoe's mileage does equal the four-cylinder Toyota Camry - but only in the city. On the highway, the Camry gets 31 mpg, 9 mpg more than the Tahoe.
-With the Camry hybrid, the gap widens, with Camry getting 33 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
Source: Chevrolet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Is this product really green?
-Avoid products that make vague claims, like "Eco-friendly," without providing details.
-Look for products the carry either the EcoLogo or Green Seal approval.
-Don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask a sales representative, or call the phone number listed on the product.
-Watch for products claiming to be free of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which have been banned for nearly 30 years.