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by Louisa May Partridge

With holidays approaching, now may be a good time for smart shoppers to revisit the six sins of greenwashing before heading out to the mall.

“Greenwash” is a portmanteau word made up of the words “green” and “whitewash”.

It describes the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practice of a company or the environmental benefit of a particular product or service.

In December of 2007,TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company, released a study called “The Six Sins of Greenwashing”. So many “green” products clamor for our attention; it’s helpful to have a list that reminds us of what to look for before we buy.According to this study, the Six Sins of Greenwashing are:

  1. The Sin of the Hidden Trade Off: e.g. Energy efficient electronics that contain hazardous materials. The problem arises when a company hides a trade off between environmental issues. 998 products and 57% of all environmental claims committed this sin.
  2. The Sin of No Proof: e.g. Personal care products such as shampoos making claims of “certified organic” or “not tested on animals” but with no verifiable certification. 454 products and 26% of environmental claims committed this sin. Look for third party certification, company website, or toll – free number on product.
  3. The Sin of Vagueness: e.g. Products claiming to be 100% natural when many naturally occurring substances are hazardous, such as arsenic. Watch for garden insecticides claiming to be “chemical free.” If the marketing claim doesn’t explain itself, it’s meaningless. Buyer beware of vague terms, “all natural”, “environmentally friendly”. This was seen in 196 products or 11% of environmental claims.
  4. The Sin of Irrelevance: e.g. Products claiming to be CFC-free even though CFC’s were banned 20 years ago. Ask if the claim is important and relevant to the product, and comparison shop. 78 products were guilty of this sin and 4% of environmental claims.
  5. The Sin of Fibbing: Products falsely claimed to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard such as EcoLogo, Energy Star, or Green Seal. Found in 10 products or less than 1% of environmental claims.
  6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: e.g. Organic cigarettes or environmentally friendly pesticides. Is this claim trying to make consumers feel green about a product that is of questionable environmental benefit? This occurred in 17 products or 1% of environmental claims.

OrganicWhen you’re at the grocery store, look for the US Dept. of Agriculture’s “Organic” seal. While this doesn’t offer you a complete guarantee, it means the ingredients are organic enough to meet a government approved certifier’s inspection.

And remember, just because it says “organic” that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.The Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising claims and is updating its 1998 green marketing guidelines. Go to to read posts of suspected greenwashers, or write your own review.

Check out our Green Pages for information on money saving tips that help the environment. Once there, click on the Green Forum for more articles by feature writer Louisa May.

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