Now that most businesses are well aware a significant chunk of their potential market cares about being ethical, shops are bursting with stuff for sale that claims to be eco-friendly, sustainable, green and all round excellent for the planet. Do you believe it?
Unless there's an accreditation attached to these claims, the best case scenario is that they're literally made up, based on the marketing department's definition of what rates as ethical and good for the planet. In the worst case scenario the business or whole industry is wilfully creating deception, covering dodgy products and practices in seductive green labels.
As a consequence, we're becoming more familiar with the thousand shades of greenwash and better at spotting the cracks. But at the same time businesses are slapping on an ever thicker coat. So let's review the most common codes and meet the leaders in pants on fire.
ACO is Australia's largest certifier for organic and biodynamic produce. NAASA is an international organic certification body covering Australia and South East Asia. If an Australian product uses the word "organic" and doesn't bare either of these labels, it's using that word to mean something other than free from pesticides, chemicals and genetically modified organisms. If a product from overseas uses the word "organic" and has no kind of certification label, it probably means organic in the sense that it is relating or derived from living matter.
Real organic certification ensures compliance with national standards and allows trace back of products to their origin. The safest way to make sure you're buying organic is to go to your local organic shop. Then you don't have to go all squinty reading labels or have a paroxysm trying to decide if you'll buy the unpackaged chemical laced pumpkin or the organic pumpkin that's wrapped in five layers of cling film.
Greenwash: Natures Organics is a whole brand that doesn't have organic certification. They make shampoos and soaps called Organic Care and dish washing liquid called Earth Choice. While the company doesn't test on animals and is trying to use chemical free ingredients (but not totally succeeding), they're not certified organic! Dodgy as. And they have palm oil from Malaysia in some of their stuff (they say it's "sustainable" and that they're good because they label it at all).
The real deal: There's heaps of people making soap, shampoo, washing powder and liquid that is chemical free and/or uses certified organic ingredients. You can look them up on the ACO website or find them in your local organic shop. Palm oil is more tricky to avoid, it's often labelled as "vegetable oil" and there's even certified organic palm oil. Check out Palm Oil Investigations for more info. Just look for the logos above to find the real organic stuff (it won't be on each carrot, but it will be on the box).
Energy Rating is a standard of the National Appliance and Equipment Energy Efficiency Program (NAEEEP) funded by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. The program covers end-use energy efficiency standards, both mandatory and voluntary. Its main resource is the Energy Rating comparative database for white goods that you can use to compare fridges, heaters, washing machines and all that. In the database and in the shop look for the stamp on the right - the more stars on the Energy Rating stamp, the more energy efficient it is.
Greenwash: Energy efficiency is great. Buying the most energy efficient alternative - you beauty. Plugging it in to a coal powered electrical socket? Not exactly environmentally friendly. This standard is excellent because it gives you all the efficiency info without all the gaff about how you're going to save the planet, because you're not.
The real deal: To reduce your ecological footprint through your energy use, get off the fossil grid! Switch to solar panels or Green Power. And don't forget to use less energy and, oh yeah, take all your money (super, savings and investments) out of the fossil fuel industry.
Ethical timber and paper. Where to begin? Founded in 1994, the goal of the FSC is to promote environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests by establishing a worldwide standard of recognised and respected Principles of Forest Stewardship. The FSC logo can be found on timber industry and paper websites and is often seen in the cover of novels to denote that the paper came from sustainably managed forests.
In recent years, a number of respected environmental organisations have cancelled their support for FSC. These include FERN (2011), Friends of the Earth UK (2008), ROBINWOOD (2009), the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC Sweden) (2011), and smaller groups such as Rainforest Rescue and the Association for the Ecological Defence of Galicia. For more information see the Criticism section of Wikipedia and to keep up to date with the latest concerns see FSC Watch.
FSC Australia is currently trying to lift the logging standards of old growth logging in Tasmania. I guess it depends if your of the "better than worst is better" school or "I like my trees standing" school as to where you stand with FSC.
Greenwash: There's so much greenwash sloshing around the logging industry that we'd need another website to cover it all. Kudos must go to the Australian Forestry Standard who certifies wood (i.e. says it's sustainable) that's logged from Australia's old growth forests, rainforests and endangered species habitat (here's the more candid version of the AFS website). VicForests, who are accredited by AFS are currently logging the Leadbeater's possum into extinction in the Central Highlands, not to mention trashing the rainforests of East Gippsland. Reflex is the company selling our trashed forests as paper, another "sustainable" company to give a wide berth - or actively campaign against if you prefer. Basically it's not safe to buy Australian made paper or timber that comes from native forests. Even some recycled timbers are not really recycled and some plantation timbers have been planted on cleared old growth forest. Tricky!
The real deal: Why buy timber or paper (certified or not) made from native forests when you can buy recycled? Thoroughly research recycled timber places, ask them how they source their timber and what it was used for before. Check out the Ethical Paper guide for the best paper choices. Don't use the WWF Guide to Buying Ethical Paper. It's sponsored by Ikea and McDonalds and will make you spew.
The Marine Stewardship Council is an accreditation system for fishing operations around the world and claims to be building a sustainable fishing industry. MSC sets out clear criteria about not over fishing or breaking local fishing laws. But the criteria doesn't preclude endangered species ending up as by-catch or exclude fishing methods that damage marine habitats. It seems pretty straight forward that dragging a massive net along a sea bed, scooping up everything in its wake is not sustainable, but you can get MSC certification and still do that. The MSC has also been caught out giving accreditation for the fishing of species that scientist regard as in decline or of unknown standing. There was a big hubbub about all this in 2011, not much news of late.
Greenwash: I don't know of any marine accreditation programs with criteria that takes into account the threats faced by our oceans due to illegal fishing, over fishing, climate change and the collapse of key species. Out of them all, the grossest greenwash would have to be Dolphin Safe, trying to suck us in with their happy dolphin, flipping about on the tuna can. The dolphins aren't safe, or the sharks, turtles and rays, and definitely not the tuna.
The real deal: There's the incredibly informative Australian Conservation Foundation Sustainable Seafood Guide, and Greenpeace Tuna Table and the message is - don't eat anything endangered or caught with a trawl net. Watch The End of the Line and you will never eat fish again.
Free range - the biggest pork pie of them all. Not only are the guidelines for free range voluntary - which means farmers regulate themselves - the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (the industry body) have tried to water guidelines down so that chickens packed in barns their whole lives can be called free range. In the meantime, Animal Liberation Victoria routinely exposes free range farms housing chickens in filthy, crowded conditions. Things are just as bad for free range pigs and other animals people like to eat.
The Free Range Farmers Association is attempting to clean up this fowl (sorry) situation by creating better standards and auditing members. Their logo is backed by clear criteria and they are champions for the happy hen.
The best way to ensure your eggs come from happy healthy chickens is to only buy organic and never buy big cage-hen producers like Pace farms no matter what they tell you.
Greenwash: Shame must be apportioned to the RSPCA who accepts sponsorship from Pace Farms, Australia’s largest battery egg producer. The RSPCA say their Liberty Barnlaid Egg Endorsement Scheme with Pace will ensure some hens get out of their cages, yet the number of battery hens in cages has not decreased while the RSPCA gets paid (to date) over $182,560 in royalty payments. Meanwhile, Pace Farms has just built the largest battery hen factory in the southern hemisphere (West Wyalong). Don't trust the RSPCA stamp on your eggs.
The real deal: Here's an ace graphic from Animals Australia that lays it all bare. Think it's time to go vegan.
So where' s the good news? The more you word up about greenwash, the more you realise that the way to live nicely on the planet and not get duped at every turn is the very same method to becoming more happy and sane - stay out of the supermarket. Shop at lovely local organic stores and markets. Eat scrumptious fresh local organic fruit and veggies, or what our grandparents used to call, fruit and veggies (as the saying goes). Buy less stuff. Pat some baby goats. And thank god for organic certification.
About the author
Sarah Day coordinates Eco-shout and writes, researches and/or does web stuff for environment groups like Environment East Gippsland, bushwalkingblog.com.au and EthicalPaper. In her spare time she enjoys communing with wildlife, frolicking in nature, and campaigning for the protection of old growth forests.