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Dec 6, 2012 1:21 AM by Jacqui Heinrich, jheinrich@koaa.com

Marketers fooling you with greenwashing

Greenwashing: it's when a company uses images or terms to make consumers believe a product is more environmentally friendly than it really is, and it happens more than you might think.

We've seen the symbols and know the lingo-- terms like 'natural', 'green' and 'organic'-- but it's not all true. "There's a lot of freedom with what's in products, what's on labels, and what's in advertising," says Darrin Duber-Smith, a green marketing expert. "Greenwashing is an attempt by an organization to give the impression that it's more environmentally responsible and socially responsible than it really is."

Take the term 'natural': we asked shoppers at a local grocery store what they thought it meant. "Probably chemical free," Rachelle Otis told News 5. "To me it means hypoallergenic," said shopper Louise Erasmus. But according to Duber-Smith, there really is no definition. "I would say the number one abused term is 'natural' because there really is no regulation. It's a mess and it's largely a mess because the government has refused to regulate the terms," our greenwashing expert says.

We inspected some baby wipes branded as 'natural'. They were fragrance and alcohol free, but contained parabens, a preservative that's been found in cancerous tumors.

"Would you expect to find ingredients that weren't completely natural in something that said natural?" News 5's Jacqui Heinrich asked one shopper. "No, I would not expect to find that," she replied.

But it's happening all the time, and the green product industry is now worth billions. "What they're really trying to do  is take advantage of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times which is more concern for people, more concern for the natural environment," Duber-Smith says.

With money to be made, companies are diving in with leafy images and empty terms. We found one bottle of water with a symbol on the packaging stating "1% for the planet", but no explanation of what that means anywhere on the bottle. A bottle of dish detergent was labeled with 'eco-friendly' on the front, but upon examination of the ingredient list, one of the first things listed was chlorine bleach.

So when should you be skeptical? Anytime you see leafy green images and graphics on products, when the term 'natural' is used prominently, or when the packaging is vague and points you to a website.

We found examples of honest packaging, too-- mostly ones that provided details. One bottle of laundry detergent claimed it was made of 66% less plastic, but specified that it was 66% less than a typical bottle of the same size; that's information the consumer can use to make decisions while shopping.

The government is starting to step in; green guidelines have been updated for the first time in 20 years. But guidelines aren't laws and there's still a lot of blurry area for companies to abuse. "This is what marketers do and consumers always have to protect themselves," Duber-Smith says.

Duber-Smith says if shopping green is important to you, do your research: any company that has a story to tell will make their efforts toward sustainability easy to find online or on the package.

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