Are you being green washed?

More products are claiming to be 'green', but are they really?
Tania Tan, Jessica Lim, Straits Times 30 Sep 08;

BROWSE through supermarket shelves here and you'll find a buffet of product labels making green claims.

But are they true blue?

A Straits Times check of about 150 necessities, including detergents, toiletries and canned foods, found 50 which claimed to be environmentally friendly.

One in four of those boasts, though, was clearly dubious and the majority could not be proven.

They are part of a trend experts call greenwashing. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, companies are increasingly gunning for their 'green dollars', said Associate Professor Bob Fleming from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) business school.

And often, their claims are little more than marketing tools.

In Singapore, trusted 'green-mark' labels come from the Singapore Environment Council. These products undergo strict testing to certify that their claims are accurate. Over 500 products from 200 companies bear the Singapore Green Label, most bound for export.

But some companies are touting self-proclaimed green labels on their packaging.

Two such companies told The Straits Times they had internal processes that certified their products as environmentally friendly. Others did not reply to queries.

One local pesticide manufacturer said that a circular green label on its product meant it was recyclable.

The logo was actually developed by a German consortium and has little environmental significance.

The National Environment Agency does not have any regulations for household product labelling, aside from a mandatory scheme for refrigerators and air-conditioners.

As a result, some customers are left to do their own research when it comes to going green.

Teacher Cynthia Chow, 40, is trying to do her part by buying eco-friendly products such as biodegradable plastic bags, despite the fact that they cost 20 to 40 per cent more than their non-green counterparts.

Though she tries to do her own label checks online, she concedes that she may not always be getting her money's worth. 'There is no way of tracking down (these labels). For consumers like me, it's just a matter of trust,' she said.

Greenwashing is not just for supermarket shelves, though.

Early this year, Compass Point shopping mall called for shoppers to 'spend more to save the environment'. Their green contributions would ultimately be rewarded with a car.

The advertisement went against the environmental edicts of 'reduce, reuse and recycle', said Mr Loo Deliang, vice-president of an NUS green group, which alerted this paper to the ad.

After penning a letter of complaint to the contest organiser, the ad was changed.

Lax regulations and a lack of proper standards here mean that the problem will only get worse before it gets better, said Prof Fleming.

'There just aren't enough regulations to stop false claims from reaching consumers.'

But the problem is not restricted to Singapore.

Last year, a survey of 1,018 products in the United States that made green claims threw up startling results - all but one boast was false or misleading.

According to the study, most claims turned out to be half-truths.

A paper product which claimed to be bleach-free, for example, might indeed have forsaken bleach, but broke environmental guidelines by using other equally-harmful chemicals.

'Outrageous claims' like recyclable polystyrene cups are a prime example of greenwashing, said Prof Fleming.

It is technically possible to recycle polystyrene containers. But what companies do not say is that recycling is too costly to be feasible, he explained.

The California Department of Conservation estimates that a tonne of polystyrene would cost a whopping US$3,000 (S$4,285) to recycle. A tonne of glass costs just US$89 to convert into new products.

'Companies will take advantage of any loophole,' said Prof Fleming.

But consumers are not totally defenceless. There are some green claims that should throw up a red flag.

Phrases like 'planet safe' and 'earth friendly' are 'fluff words', said Prof Fleming, because they reveal little concrete information about how green the product is, and how it was made.

Non-accredited symbols are another consumer booby trap, said Singapore Environment Council executive director Howard Shaw.

The ubiquitous recycling logo - the Mobius loop - is one such renegade mark.

'You could stick it on the back of a bus, and no one's liable,' said Mr Shaw.

Compared with those in countries such as Japan, labels here are still rudimentary, he added.

Hopefully, products here will eventually carry labels similar to Japanese ones, with detailed information on recycled contents, and soon, carbon footprint data, said Mr Shaw.

Public awareness is the best counter for errant labels, said NUS' Prof Fleming.

Websites like and help highlight greenwash cases, he noted.

Product websites are another helpful tool for consumers to check the environmental claims of their purchases.

Ms Chow, a green shopper, visits product websites to check if labels are verifiable.

'Sometimes, you have to read beyond the labels,' she said.

Additional reporting by Daryl Tan & Lim Heng Liang

Going green: Firms can do a lot more
Tania Tan, Straits Times 30 Sep 08;

BUSINESSES here are getting greener, but the results of a new survey suggest firms still have some way to go before they can be considered truly eco-friendly.

While many have adopted policies to protect the earth - like using energy-efficient lightbulbs and printing on both sides of office paper - few have gone beyond measures that also help them cut costs.

'Going green still hasn't taken root yet,' said Mr Leon Perera, managing director of Spire Research and Consulting, which surveyed 106 firms. 'Green measures are still skin-deep for most companies.'

Spire conducted phone interviews with firms in seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Korea and Vietnam.

The companies were either large or multinational corporations, said Mr Perera.

At least one was a Fortune 500 company, he said, declining to reveal their names.

Eight in 10 companies here have adopted environmental conservation measures, the survey found.

This puts the Singapore ahead their counterparts in neighbouring countries, where only about 67 per cent have adopted green measures.

Results of the inaugural survey were encouraging, said Mr Perera but he stopped short of calling local businesses 'green'.

'A truly green business is one that practises environmental consciousness from top management right down to the janitor,' he said.

Korean corporations best fit the definition of 'green firms', with regular participation and donations to environmental causes, as well as carbon-trading, said Mr Perera.

The president of non-profit group Environmental Challenge Organisation, Mr Wilson Ang, said businesses understand that 'going green helps to boost their bottom line'.

'The next challenge is turning awareness into action,' he said.

The environment has been moving up on the national agenda, with an inter-ministry committee recently pledging to balance economic growth with environmental sustainability.

But some companies are hoping for a more aggressive approach by the public sector.

'If China can ban plastic bags, why not Singapore?' said Mr Harold Kloeden, general manager of waste management company Veolia Environmental Services Singapore.

He was referring to a measure Beijing put in place during the Olympics.

Polystyrene cups and plates are a big no-no at his company headquarters in Tuas.

Employees use non-disposable crockery instead.

'Being a little bit more green is sometimes a little bit less convenient but it's necessary and it feels good,' said Mr Kloeden.

Full PDF on the Straits Times website.