What Are You Buying When You Are Buying Green?

I've suspected this for awhile, but someone finally went out and proved it: No one has the foggiest notion of what “green” really means. We all have a vague idea, and we like the idea of “buying green,” but when pressed, could you really explain green? Do you even know what trade regulators think green is?

Air Quality Sciences Inc. has released a whitepaper, “Defining Green Products,” which examines green products and their marketing claims. AQS reports:

    Beyond the assumption that the term “green” indicates environmentally preferable attributes, the term is quite vague and subject to multiple interpretations depending on any number of factors, including local, national, and international business practices; market structures; societal norms; politics; and government regulations. In fact, due to the ambiguity surrounding the term, some government guidelines even discourage use of it altogether.

For all its faults, at least RoHS is explicit about what it is banning.

The gist of the whitepaper is that the term “green” has been misused by marketing firms and the media:

    Complicating matters is the widespread use of terms like “natural,” “organic,” “planet-friendly,” “earth friendly,” “ecological,” “non-toxic,” “biodegradable,” “plant-based,” “chlorine-free,” and “100 percent compostable,” which consumers erroneously assume are synonymous with “green.”

Guilty as charged.

As it turns out, a number of countries are taking a stab at defining green. For the record, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims,” also referred to as the “Green Guides” or “Guides,” to help marketers ensure that the claims they make are true and substantiated. The Green Guides were revised in 1996 and again in 1998 and included the following:

  • General principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims
  • Guidance on how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate those claims
  • Tips on how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers

OK, then.

The reason green-washing scares me is two-fold: First, we all use the terms “green,” “sustainable,” and “environmentally friendly” loosely; and second, people, corporations, and governments are making buying decisions around “green.” If you are going to place a substantial amount of your company's money into something, whether it's components or investment funds, you should at least know what you are getting.

The AQS whitepaper defines the various terms; cites law; and provides a ton of reference materials on all things green. I'm going to keep the link handy for future reference.

14 comments on “What Are You Buying When You Are Buying Green?

  1. AnalyzeThis
    November 16, 2010

    I absolutely agree that “green”-type buzzwords are brandied about way too excessively. No argument there.

    Now, in my particular case, my definition of a “green” product is ultimately something that saves me “green” (money) in addition to its “environmentally friendly” aspects (which may in fact be questionable or hard to place an exact ROI on).

    When I pursue a “green” initiative, I am more concerned over saving my company money than saving the world. So primarily, I have invested in products and projects which save energy and lower our utility or real estate costs.

    When I buy “green,” I'm looking for more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling and perhaps some good PR in return.


  2. Ms. Daisy
    November 16, 2010


    I agree with you on buying green should save me greens, after all “earth friendly” or “chemical free” should be natural and cheap. Sun rays, rain water and other basic earth components are still free. But the labor and distribution cost adds up.

    On a more serious note, I look forward to clear definitions of what qualifys for the term green. At least a set of guidelines for each product category will be a start.

  3. Anna Young
    November 16, 2010

    I agree. If the use of “green” has become a loose and marketing buzz word of choice that is subject to varied interpretations, shouldn't the manufacturer at least provide a clear understanding of what is “green”? It is the government''s job to ensure that there are regulations and guidelines as to clarity on what a manufacturer can describe as “green”. The industry should not be left to police itself.

  4. DataCrunch
    November 16, 2010

    It will get even more confusing and potentially more devious.  Corporations that pollute (“non-green”) will be able to buy and trade carbon offsets and credits and can become carbon neutral (“green”) just buy throwing money around.  Would you consider corporations or products made by these polluting corporations “green” just because they can claim they are carbon neutral?  You may not, but they may have the right to claim they are “green”. 

    So, in theory you may be buying the same products as before, made the same ways as before, but may be able to tout that they are “green”.  

  5. tioluwa
    November 17, 2010

    how far does the US FTC's Green Guides reach? which other countries have distinctively defined what “green” means. The term has had me confused for a long time too, but thanks to this post, i'm free!


    if RoHS could be defined, then other “green” issues specific to other products can also be defined so when a tech company says “green” we understand. When an energy company says “green” we know what' they're trying to say. and finally, when a supply chain personnel says “green” we should also know what they mean, that is if there is any thing like “green” supply chain.

  6. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 17, 2010

    Within their own four walls, most companies will be able to demonstrate how their measures are saving the corporation money. Newark/Premier Farnell come to mind: they measure how much paper/cardboard they recycle; have replaced all lights with LEDs; use soy ink for printing, etc. So they can make a case to their shareholders that they are saving $$$.

    Now, if I were an investor, that's the kind of information I'd be looking for. But the lack of standards or a baseline makes it difficult to tell whether Newark/PF is a leader in this area, or if they are taking the average approach to green. (My experience says they are a leader, BTW.)

    If I were a corporate buyer, and I had a choice to buy green vs. non-green, I would go with green all other things being equal. But what if green carries a price premium? Again, I would want to know how this green-ness is measured and against what standards. I would have to be able to justify to my management I am paying more for green but that this will save money (or the planet) in the long term.

    It's maddening.



  7. SP
    November 17, 2010

    I agree. The word Green is used very loosely. I would say it has become social status to say we use green products. But hardly there is a clear cut definition as in case of ROHS. But if something has to be made into business reality then first thing is to define it and then keep upgrading the definition untill the final version is ready.

  8. elctrnx_lyf
    November 18, 2010

    This article along with the report brings out there is no clear defintion or the quantative expression to define the term green. I was wondering no one was trying to get a patent on this term 🙂 Government or the organizations from different domains such as IEEE should clearly define a standard on how a product can be green. It should be started with basic consumer electronic products and even food.

  9. stochastic excursion
    November 18, 2010

    Environmental friendliness is still largely an image-building consideration in mainstream industries.  As such it's mostly a risk-management consideration, like avoiding being associated with an EPA superfund clean-up. 

    Federal environmental mandates are a testament to the public awareness and outcry over pollution during the years of tremendous growth in American industry.  Old timers recall when disposing of toxic waste meant paying someone a few bucks to haul it away.  Public health studies have made the impact of pollution measurable and capable of being benchmarked.

    Beyond the negative means of assessing greenness, i.e. how well a company avoids running afoul of environmental regulation, benchmarks of green practices are very elusive.  This is especially true in calculating embodied energy. 

    For instance, in calculating the energy inputs required to put a loaf of bread on the supermarket shelf, it becomes daunting rather quickly.  Accurately determining the methods of processing, transportation, and storage are only part of the task.

    Green claims will remain difficult to quantify for some time.  Until then, we have to rely on the sniff test for assessment.  If it smells high in nitrates, it probably is high in nitrates.

  10. mike_at_DCA
    November 19, 2010

    “Green” is a big problem, as everyone notes. Even RoHS is not “green”, and we have data to prove it. So some (OK, MANY) things that are touted as such clearly are not.

    We have neither standards nor laws that help us clearly and concisely show that one thing's environmental performance is better than another's. Attempts are being made to do so (IEEE, which you mention, has IEEE-1680.1 – EPEAT – which targets professional purchases of computer/notebook/monitor equipment but I see it applied to consumer product as well; .2 and .3 will expand the scope, apply to consumer products, and are somewhat more rigorous, but even it has plenty of issues).

    American Chemical Society and NSF International are working on a Greener Chemicals standard and that is, in my mind, one of the fundamental standards we need to be in place before we can really even start defining or comparing “greenness”. How can we say one product is “greener” than another without being able to compare the (sometimes thousands of different) chemicals the things are comprised of? Other fundamental standards are needed and many, many sector- or even product-specific standards will be needed before we can say “green” without implying “greenwashing”.

  11. Susan Fourtané
    November 25, 2010

    Hello, Barbara 

    Excellent article! Thanks for the link, too. Green products and services are still quite new and undeveloped in many cases to give us a real idea of what we should be calling Green. So far the spectrum seems to be wide enough to, in some cases, makes us believe we are buying something Green which is not. 

    There is still a long way to go in the Green world. 


  12. SP
    November 25, 2010

    It would be really funny if someone really files patent on the term Green. But looking at race in filing patents, its not impossible.

  13. hwong
    November 30, 2010

    Most of the time, consume less is better than buying green. Statistics show humans always use up resources we develop intentionally and tap into natural resources each year. Depletion of natural resources is something we must change our life style.

  14. itguyphil
    November 30, 2010

    Great point. This is sort of like the Parkinson's principle but related to resources. It goes that a resource given a certain amount of abundance will utilize all available before complete consumption.

    I think it is in human nature to subconsciously find ways to exploit resources for our own benefit, even if it is not totally necessary. This is why people slap the green lable on things to try to get us to think about our wasteful ways. I guess it's one step in the right direction.

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