Greenwashing in Real Life

February 2nd, 2011 by Cathy Rust Leave a reply »

I always love going to the Interior Design Show. It’s a great mix of unique interior design exhibits, new products, up and coming Canadian designers at Style North and great designer displays. This year was no exception — it was truly a great event with loads of energy buzzing from the crowds. While I walked around the event speaking with exhibitors I was, of course looking specifically for “green” products and features. Speaking with the exhibitors it was pretty easy to become enthralled with the beautiful displays and pitches thrown my way regarding products. But once away from the frenetic pace of the show, there was time to reflect, and reflection allowed me to think back on what I saw and ask critical questions and in a few cases, I wasn’t comfortable with the answers.

A perfect example of pure “greenwashing” is a discussion I had at one of the many paint booths at the show. The paint I was looking at was labelled “zero VOC.” That is, it emits no volatile organic compounds that pollute a home’s indoor air quality. Volatile organic compounds can cause headaches at the very least, but also in some cases respiratory problems, asthma, and in severe instances is linked to some cancers. So there have been a lot of efforts by companies with products that commonly off-gas to reduce the responsible chemicals — or at least convince us that they have done it, when maybe they haven’t done quite as good a job as they’d like you to believe.

Not surprisingly, paint is one of the most significant off-gassing products. I was told all the benefits of this one product: it was washable, long-lasting, came in a variety of finishes from flat to semi-gloss and was available in all the colours the company offered. And here was the rub: if you left it at that you would have been convinced that the paint was a zero VOC paint no matter what — unless you happened to know that you have to ask what happens when you add tints. When I asked, the answer was an honest, “it no longer is a zero VOC paint. It’s a low VOC paint. The tints still emit fumes.” Ah ha. A paint that is being marketed as a zero VOC paint is only zero VOC if it’s not tinted. But there’s no where on the splashy posters that admittedly show a can of white zero VOC paint that explains that. Unless you’re a minimalist, chances are good you’re going to be adding some colour to that paint — especially when the poster is right next to a display board with hundreds of colour swatches.

Will I be likely to use this “zero” VOC paint? I doubt it. Not because I don’t think it’s a good product, but merely because it’s being misrepresented and the company has lost my trust.

Another product that was making a big splash was a reuse product. But this time there was no real “green washing” per se.  The product itself was gorgeous and I was drawn in by the display and the colours and the idea of avoiding landfill. I interviewed the product representative and then my wheels started turning and questions started running through my head. The reuse product involved a lot of processing in order to get the effect produced and some of the chemicals used, while still being high quality, were pretty significant chemicals. Were they disposed of properly? Were labour laws met? How much energy and water was being used to repurpose the product? I don’t know because the information wasn’t offered up and the work is being done in a developing country — that in itself suggests that environmental and labour laws were lax — but perhaps they weren’t. In this case, however, the product was not being marketed as “green” it was only my jumping to conclusions that because the product was being reused it was green. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a step back and do a little critical thinking when looking for “green” products.

So, you might be asking yourself then “When in the world do I know if a product is green?” Good question. Tomorrow, I’ll post a piece about some of the things to look for in a “green” product. Stay tuned….

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