Thursday 16 June 2011

a green fling lesson: greenwashing

I've been greenwashed!

Nothing frustrates this greenie more than greenwashing.  Never heard of it?
Green-wash (green'wash', -wosh') - verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company of the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Terrachoice has a great website that covers the seven sins of greenwashing - I highly recommend a quick read of the sin explanations, from the hidden trade-off, to no proof, to irrelevance to out and out fibbing.  Greenwashing can be deliberate or not, but is anything that misleads the consumer into thinking she or he is buying 'green' when they are not.  Unfortunately while eco-labelling is not mandatory and we're learning the intricacies of sustainability, it seems we'll all be touched by greenwashing - even me.

It's embarrassing to admit, but I've just been greenwashed by my hair salon (sigh...).  I won't be naming and shaming here, just sharing my story so you can hopefully learn from my experience.

Over a year ago I received an e-newsletter from a local salon who claimed they had gone green - they'd switched to green power, were using natural detergents and cleaning supplies, offering organic coffee, tea and wine to their clients, and had switched to Aveda* hair products and colouring.  This greenie was ecstatic!  When I called and made an appointment I checked that they definitely used Aveda (my previous salon had recently switched from Aveda to another brand), and made sure to tell them the reason I was coming was because they had gone green - I love rewarding moments of green enlightenment!

Over the course of the year I noticed an increase in the range of hair products they sold, not all of them green, and in particular they were pushing the Moroccan Oil brand.  When they tried to get me to purchase it I asked about its environmental credentials, and all they said was that it was green and all natural (a quick look at the ingredients told me it wasn't). Then on my last visit when I walked past the colour cabinet after being rinsed at the oh-so-comfortable-and-decadent massaging chair slash wash-basin, I saw that none of the boxes of colour were Aveda - what?! When I asked about this the response was that Aveda didn't offer the range of colour they were looking for.  By then it was too late, I already had the colour on my head! So in addition to my cut, colour and wash I'd been greenwashed.

Another disturbing fact was that they changed from using natural detergents to wash their towels to using a company called The Big Towel Company - a company selling what they claim to be 'eco-friendly, biodegradable, single use towels'.  The claims on the website make this a tricky one, especially for those just dabbling in the green arena, but my gut feeling was that they were greenwashers.  I called on my favourite LCA expert for his advice to help me sort his one out - thanks Ben! 

Ben explained that the company is making claims without the proof, and leaving out key elements of the process (for instance, it takes a lot of water and energy to turn raw wood into paper, and they have not indicated any accreditation for the timber and its origins - if it's truly sustainable then it would be FSC certified).  They committed sins of the hidden trade-off and no truth in these two facts alone.  In addition nearly all single-use products have a higher environmental impact than multiple-use products, and the salon would be washing and drying using green power, so the salon would be greener if they used cotton towels (organic would be preferred!) and washed in their earth-friendly detergents as they did when they originally went green.

I'm not sure if the salon realises they are being greenwashed and then passing that onto all of us customers or not - I suspect they don't. 

So, what do I do now?  Find another salon, I suppose.  Their moving away from Aveda was enough for me, and the towel thing merely added fuel to that fire.  I think I'll suggest they reconsider using The Big Towel company in case they don't realise they've been greenwashed, just to help clear the air.

So there you have it - greenwashing 101.  I hope this lesson was helpful and encourages you to ask questions and research green claims before you commit to a 'green' purchase.  It can be tricky, but the information is always there if you know where to look! 

If you have any other burning sustainability questions, fire them my way.

*There are rumblings that Aveda itself is greenwashing.  The hair colour products use 97-99% plant-dervived ingredients.  I realise that this means the remainder of the product is synthetic, and don't feel they are deliberately lying.  Also they are the best of the bunch in terms of salon quality colour.  They also have strong sustainability guidelines regarding material sourcing, using windpower and have hired 'Cradle to Cradle' guru Michael Braungart as a consultant to ensure they continue to improve - this is an organisation I'm happy to support.  Other greenies have other opinions.

For now my choice is to use Aveda professional hair colour - I'll write more about hair colour in another post to elaborate on the details, including why this greenie is still colouring her hair.

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