Anyone else remember 2007, when one of the hot topics among corporations--besides these new-fangled social media--was sustainability? In October of that year, I reported from a conference for "corporate responsibility officers," a burgeoning role for many corporate communicators.
The mood at the conference was optimistic, although many people admitted they were unsure how sustainability would play into their business models. There was an eager presenter at the conference--Scott Case from the sustainable marketing company TerraChoice--who bended my ear about the possibilities of "green" marketing and the dangers of "greenwashing."
Greenwashing, he explained, is the act of misleading consumers about the environmental practices of a company or product.
On Tuesday, Case and TerraChoice--which is now owned by Underwriter Laboratories--were in the news for its study warning consumers that "green" labels might be untrue.
The study, titled The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition, found that more than 95 percent of more than 5,000 consumer products in the U.S. and Canada that claim to be green are committing at least one sin of greenwashing.
Among the seven greenwashing sins, "no proof" and "vagueness" are the ones that are most committed, the report said. No proof involves a claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible information; vagueness means that marketing language is so poorly defined or broad that its actual meaning is likely misunderstood.
"The scary thing is that manufacturers are not providing independent proof of these claims," Case, who is now a market-development director for Underwriters Laboratories Inc., told The Wall Street Journal. "The same verification we expect from accounting records, we should expect from BPA claims."
BPA is a controversial chemical used in some products.
WSJ noted that TerraChoice and Underwriters Laboratories "offer green-certification programs and could benefit if more manufacturers seek third-party verification of the eco-claims."
The study did strike an optimistic tone, noting that greenwashing has declined slightly since 2009. This year, 4.5 percent of products were "sin-free," compared to just 2 percent last year.
Scott McDougall, president of TerraChoice, said this increase, however slight, is "early evidence of a positive and long-lasting trend."
And even though corporate responsibility is not as widely discussed today as it was in 2007, studies suggest it's still important to many corporations. Newsweek reported in June that 96 percent of CEOs worldwide regard sustainability as important to their companies' success.
I dug up a video interview I shot with Case at the conference in 2007. I'm behind the camera, not the one asking the questions. Apologizes for how raw the video is; this was before Ragan had an actual video department. Instead, it was just a couple reporters running around with consumer-grade cameras.