Should Third Parties Counter Greenwashing?

Still Water Life

I attended a green social media marketing panel last night in Washington, DC that included Sacha Cohen, Jennifer Kaplan, Diane MacEachern, Lynn Miller, Adam Shake and moderator Kate Sheppard. The panelists got bogged down in tools, but eventually transitioned to how to positively create more movement on green behavioral change and technology adoption. At the heart of the matter is the many greenwashing issues, as well as distrust of bloggers who blindly recommend initiatives.

One panelist (and forgive me because I was in the back) posed the concept of using third party validators to formally counter greenwashing initiatives. The use of trustworthy third parties will counter the distrust of green oil salesmen, so to speak. Ironically, the FTC has a similar idea in mind.

I like this as it’s clear that many people see green as an opportunity to cash in. Most simply go green for the value and increasingly smart business sense that goes with sustainability. Some have clearly taken that opportunity and stretched the ethical norm to achieve their goals. I believe protecting consumers and good businesses from the few bad apples is something that will hasten adoption.

My fear with this whole third party validation model is putting too much trust in one basket. I prefer to see an organization like Consumer Reports test and validate greenness than an official green body or worse, the government. This may be a role for an industry association, too. I think a couple of trustworthy third parties would be great.

The worse thing that could happen is flushing more tax dollars down the drain on another red herring… I wonder whether the FTC is the right body or if it should be the EPA, and its Energy Star programs. One hand doesn’t use the other, clearly.

Perhaps I am jaded after living in DC for 18 years. What are your thoughts on third parties countering green washing.

Geoff Livingston is a regular contributor to the Live Earth blog.

6 thoughts on “Should Third Parties Counter Greenwashing?

  1. Geoff,

    This is precisely why we need to support objective journalism. They were the third party validators who would investigate claims, receive tips, and are vigilant in pursuing the truth. As objective journalism is diminished, other people with agendas beyond seeking the truth step up to fill the vacancy.

    • Validation journalism: Tend to investigate issues to prove viewer speculation only.
    • Green warriors: Set a standard that no company can ever measure up too.
    • Govt. regulators: Start solid, but then base decisions on validating existence.
    • Corp. green associations: In the end, it’s all politics so self-policing fails.

    Take your pick. Personally, I would agree with you that govt. regulators would be the worst. Countering green washing is best left the job of objective journalists, but since we have so few … everyday people might have to pick up the mantle. And if they do not, then the govt. will be the most likely to do it for us.

    Best,
    Rich

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  5. As one of the panelists at this event, I argued in favor of third party standards as a way to protect against greenwashing. Ideally, standards set by an impartial institution, as opposed to the company itself, would set a higher bar than the company might set for itself, and would continue to raise the bar as companies met increasingly demanding standards. In most cases I favor mandatory standards set by the federal government. But this does not mean that “watchdogs” wouldn’t be needed to ensure the standards are being met. The organic standard, though far from perfect, is a good example. It benefits from watchdogs at many levels (from Consumer Reports to the Organic Consumers Association to local advocacy organizations) who evaluate companies according to their compliance with the standard. The standard gives them the measuring stick to use.

    Fundamentally, it is not an “either/or” situation. We need mandatory standards to set the bar; we need independent watchdogs to make sure that when companies claim they’re meeting the standards, they are.

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