I was recently shafted by a car rental company that uses every trick in the book to separate its customers from cash in the most obnoxious way possible. But flim-flam is widespread, and it's even invaded the world of green. Sadly, an "environmentally friendly" label isn't necessarily insulation against bad business practices. Here are a few of the tactics green-themed marketers use to make themselves look "greener" than they really are:
1. We give a portion of our proceeds to the cause.
This sounds good, but it can be a red flag. Unless the organization specifies exactly what percentage it's donating (and whether it's a percentage of profits or of gross sales), the amount could be minuscule. I Googled the phrase, and found that use of the vague language is widespread -- and deliberately so. The lawyered text allows the companies to change the percentage at will. After all, one tenth of one percent is still a "portion."
2. Our product is "natural."
As Sally Deneen writes in AOL's WalletPop, there are at least six reasons why "natural" on a product label is totally meaningless. According to Deneen, "Natural is such an abused term that it should send your B.S. meter spinning....Nevertheless, it is the most common green claim used on cosmetics and kids' products, according to a report called The Seven Sins of Greenwashing. Even worse, each new year brings a slew of new foods and drinks claiming to be 'all natural.'" My t-shirt is "natural," because it's cotton, even though cotton has more pesticides sprayed on it than any other product. That juice is natural because it doesn't have any added artificial chemicals, even though it's full of sugar.
3. It's a hybrid!
Not all hybrid cars are created equal, and there's nothing magical about the technology. Hybridize a big SUV and its mileage will improve, but it will still suck. Sure, the Toyota Prius gets 50 mpg and managed to extend its halo over the entire category, but it doesn't really compute. The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, for instance, gets just 20 mpg city/21 mpg highway. The Lexus LS 600h? That big luxury hybrid clocks in at 20 mpg city/22 mpg highway. Many hybrids emphasize performance over economy, but they still wrap themselves in green. Fox says the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid is the "quickest hybrid in the world," but you'll have to put up with 17 mpg in town and an undistinguished 19 on the highway.
4. Our healthy ingredients mean it's health food.
Wrong! Many products with smug "no sugar added" or "no artificial ingredients" labels are packed with calories and fat. A great case in point is upscale ice cream. The Brownie Special at Ben & Jerry's? 1,020 calories. The Mud Pie Mojo at Cold Stone Creamery? 1,180 calories. The Mint Chip Dazzler at Haagen-Dazs? 1,270 calories. Then there's frozen yogurt, which gets people thinking "it's yogurt, so it has to be healthy." As Nutrition Action points out, the FDA serving for frozen yogurt is a half cup, but most chains "typically serve up one cup or more." That can mean 300 calories even from that small serving. "And some snackers are so proud of their 'low-cal' yogurt that they go heavy on the toppings," the invaluable newsletter reports. "Unless it's fresh fruit, don't."
5. We make a green product, so we treat our workers better.
In truth, most products sold in the U.S. are made in factories in Asia, and it's the truly rare company, environmentally friendly or not, that pays a lot of attention to the conditions for workers that far from home. Price is the deciding factor. American Apparel deserves some credit for making its clothes in downtown Los Angeles, but the company has a raft of other problems, apparently. According to the New York Times, even after 10 years of pressure from American multinationals, working at a Chinese factory is no picnic. "Chinese companies routinely shortchange their employees on wages, withhold health benefits and expose their workers to dangerous machinery and harmful chemicals, like lead, cadmium and mercury," the story said. Workers making the Apple iPad reportedly toil under such inhumane conditions that some leaped off the factory roof. This is an instance where "buy local" really does matter.
6. It's a green product, so you need it.
A lot of environmental stuff doesn't really work all that well: the cleaner (no harmful chemicals!) that doesn't clean, the "recycled materials" oven mitt that burns your fingers. And a lot of it is just junk: Gadgets you can easily live without, from wind-up radios and solar hat fans to LED frisbees and solar phone battery chargers. Not buying something is sometimes the greenest choice.
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