Makower talks Greenwash

TerraChoice: Sin of the Hidden Trade-off

TerraChoice: Sin of the Hidden Trade-off



Back in April, TerraChoice released their second report on greenwashing, titled “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing.” The first report, “The Six Sins of Greenwashing,” came out in 2007. The recent report offers new stats and, of course, the added seventh sin. Unfortunately, fashion, textile and apparel products were not included in the TerraChoice research. Don’t let this fool you; greenwashing is rampant in the fashion, textile and apparel industry.


Joel Makower from Greenbiz offers a great commentary on the report, outlining where, and how, it may have fallen short:

“Late last year, TerraChoice repeated the process, though extended its reach: Its researchers were sent into retailers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. The track record was slightly better: 25 products found in North American stores were deemed “sin-free,” says TerraChoice. The trends were similar in the other countries.

At first glance, those findings seem dire and depressing. But much like some of the eco-claims themselves, TerraChoice’s report doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. What’s really going on here? Are manufacturers truly that overwhelmingly misleading? Is just about everyone out there pulling the green wool over our collective eyes? Or has TerraChoice set a bar so unreasonably high that even the most well-intentioned companies can’t clear it, and lumped the imperfect claims together with the truly bad ones in order to make its point? In other words, who’s greenwashing who?

Truth is, there’s a little of each going on.

First, honor is due. TerraChoice has performed a public service here, calling attention to the fact that so many companies are making claims that are anything from fuzzy to fraudulent. The groundwork they’ve done here is invaluable, even if the conclusions they’ve drawn from it are, in my opinion, a bit misleading.”

Read the rest of his article here. Make sure you check out the full TerraChoice report.

For more information, listen in on this Podcast, “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Seventh Sin of Greenwashing,” where Makower interviews Scot Case, Vice President of TerraChoice on the issue of greenwashing and the 2009 report.


Stay informed!


Source: TerraChoice, Joel Makower, and

Mary has a PhD in Sociology from University of Edinburgh, researching responsible fashion and transnational labour rights activism in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh.

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3 thoughts on “Makower talks Greenwash

  1. Jordan

    I think that it’s important to be very critical about results such as those presented by the TerraChoice report. Whenever a claim like “98% failure rate based on our set of criteria is made”, it really calls into question the validity or, more importantly, the usefulness of such a criteria. The reason is simple: it’s easy to come up with some standard that no one can live up to.

    This completely ignores the reality of what is occurring in the industry, and only succeeds in pointing out that TerraChoice was unable to come up with a useful metric by which to measure the level of greenwashing that is taking place. A measure that lumps 98% of the companies into one class and doesn’t really allow one to discriminate within that whole group of is fairly useless. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist reading a marketing paper, but the fact that they can make a claim like “98% failure rate” without giving enough information so that a third-party could validate their claim seems absurd.

    What is ironic is that the authors of a report that proposes a set of sins would not take the care required to not violate their very own sins:
    1) Sin of the Hidden Trade-off: Doesn’t lumping companies into “liar” or “good” based on an arbitrary set of criteria commit exactly this sin.
    2) Sin of No Proof: As Joel Makower points out, this seems to be the most obvious violation of their own rules, as they really don’t back up their claims.
    3) Sin of Vagueness: See 2. If you offer no substantial evidence to back up your claim, then all you can really do is make vague claims and rely on the reader to just trust you.
    4) Sin of Worshiping False Labels: My personal favourite, because if you skim through the TerraChoice Marketing Guide, they treat the “Seven Sins” as if they are some kind of golden rules that everyone agrees on. No where is it pointed out that these were proposed by TerraChoice, and are not some sort of industry standard. Saying that a product is good because it does not violate the Seven Sins seems about as useful to the consumer as giving a score on the SC Johnson Greenlist rating system, probably even less so.
    5) Sin of Irrelevance: I don’t know what the relevance of saying 98% of companies fail this test, but we won’t tell you who, or tell you which sins particular companies violated.
    6) Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: I didn’t come up with a way that they violated this one, because I don’t accept it as a legitimate sin. I think that in this day and age, the best we can do is pick between the lesser of a set of evils, and all we can ask for is to be well informed as to which products are less evil. The TerraChoice report itself states that there is no such thing as a perfectly ‘green’ (their use of quotes, not mine) product, and so aren’t we always picking between the lesser of two evils. I think that this is an example of making the test too hard so that you can have sensational results like 98%.
    7) Sin of Fibbing: Well, given the lack of transparency, there is no basis for determining whether they are fibbing or not.

    Maybe I just shouldn’t be reading reports from marketing companies criticizing other marketing companies…Really, what good could come from that. And as a final thought, why does the word green appear in quotes all over their material? Is ‘green’ some vague notion that I don’t fully understand? Are they using the term incorrectly and trying to highlight that? Is it just really poor writing (like I’m one to talk)?

  2. maryhanlon Post author

    Hi Jordan,

    You’ve made some real valid points in your criticism of the report. As is often the case in CSR, there is the question of who’s monitoring the monitors, and by what standard. As you have pointed out however, and as Joel Makower has highlighted in his article, we have to be critical of all sides of each story. And it is important for others to recognize that to criticise the report is not to discredit it; hopefully we can take our critiques and move forward, toward a better understanding of the terminology being used and the standards being set. But for this to happen, transparency is key (something not exactly present in the report).

    Joel Makower questions where the line in the sand has been drawn to distinguish greenwashing outside of other marketing campaigns. After all, brand marketing is notorious for selling the idea of something. This is an important question.

    In the case of socially responsible fashion design education, the report has ignored fashion/textile/apparel products, from what I can tell. This is a serious omission, as the ‘green’ movement within the fashion industry is largely unchecked. Some immediate examples that come to mind: 1) bamboo being sold as a completely sustainable fibre, which we know is not the case, when considered through its entire lifecycle, and 2) a most recent case of ‘organic cotton’ fraud, as reported on by Ecotextile News.

    These are just some examples. Many fashion and textile companies boast the use of ‘fair labour’ standards. Of course, taken in context, ‘fair’ may be used to define labour practices that uphold the law in the country where the product is being manufactured. And if there is no rule of law?

    As we saw earlier, few weeks ago, with a report out by The National Labor Committee, “Is a Bargain on a Pair of Jeans Worth a Young Woman’s Life?” on the situation in Bangladesh, these issues are rampant in the industry.

  3. Jordan

    “to criticise the report is not to discredit it” is something that should be repeated over and over again, in every field.

    I think that point about drawing the line between marketing material and substantive information is so important. Marketing by its very nature is supposed to be about buzz-words and fluff, and I think it does everyone a disservice to spend too much time arguing about marketing material should be held to the standards of quality to which we hold other information about a product. Look at the points that the TerraChoice report chose to highlight in bright green: numbers without context. That’s what gets a report like this the attention its getting, and that’s what’s always going to be the brightest, flashiest part of any report like this, from a Marketing company. That’s what sells. I don’t see anything wrong with that, it’s just the way it is.

    Personally, I think you should give the marketers a bit of a pass when they say something like “most green car in its class”, and worry about whether the fine print is correct, or if a concerned party would actually be able to _easily_ find out the details of how green that vehicle is. Marketers always say “best this” and “number one that”, and I think you’re fighting the wrong fight if you’re really concerned with that. Most people are smart enough to not take those kinds of claims seriously, and those who do take them seriously generally aren’t the type of people who would want to be bombarded with all of that sciency-mumbo-jumbo anyways. Let the snake-oil salesmen do their jobs, and focus on making the real information available to those who seek it and hold the companies accountable for how they behave. If you accomplish that, I’d say you’ve made the world a much better place. IMHO…

    I’m not saying that greenwashing is not a valid concern, in fact I think that it is of the utmost importance. Companies should not be able to make claims that are not true or otherwise mislead consumers. I just think that the silly claims like “most green” should be skipped over, they are meaningless and aren’t worth acknowledging. I mean, it seems like there is no consensus on what green even means, so everyone is forced to put quotes around it…

    And demonizing a company for calling a readily biodegradable product just biodegradable, because that resonates more with consumers, is a bit silly. If the choice really becomes “be perfect or we’ll publicly humiliate you” or don’t bother, I think more and more companies will choose to not bother. The approach should be “we appreciate that you’re trying, and we’ll offer guidance as to how to do even better”. I saw much more demonizing, and much less guidance in that report, though there definitely was some guidance.

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