Public-opinion surveys these days tell us that saving the planet from ecological ruin has become a top-of-mind issue with Canadians, the result being that a cause long neglected and frequently scorned has acquired the power to make or break the aspirations of political parties and possibly even boost or depress corporate bottom lines.
Once-skeptical politicians such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper have boarded the green bandwagon and leaders of business and industry are scrambling to get onside rather than risk being walloped by onerous government regulations, or public disapproval.
No doubt some of our born-again environmentalists have had genuine conversion experiences. Others, in both politics and business, have merely turned to their marketing and messaging experts for a green makeover.
"At times like this, there are a lot of false and conflicting claims in the marketplace," says Scott McDougall, president of Ottawa-based Terra Choice Environmental Marketing Inc., a company that sorts out what's legitimate and what isn't. "There are claims that are just plain wrong, either by mistake or they are deliberately misleading. We call it greenwashing."
Terra Choice administers an Environment Canada certification program established in 1988 to recognize products that have a minimal impact on the environment throughout their lifecycle - from manufacture through use to disposal. Individual companies apply to have their products certified. Terra Choice hires independent auditors to determine whether the goods meet its criteria. If they do, a company can use in its marketing material Environment Canada's EcoLogo, a stylized maple leaf formed from three intertwined doves.
About 250 companies are slapping the EcoLogo on some 3,000 products in 150 different categories. These include paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning detergent, gasoline, photocopiers, printer paper, home insulation and paints.
The David Suzukis of this world might look at some of these products and scoff because few would meet the gold standard of the ecological purists, which is something called environmentally neutral.
"We're not saying they're perfect," admits McDougall. "We reward leadership. We want to see the leaders win. An EcoLogo-certified paint could have adverse environmental effects, but it will be a better product than 80 per cent of the other products on the market."
Home insulation is a good example of how rewarding leadership can work. In the mid 1990s, Terra Choice stipulated that a certain percentage of a product had to be recycled material in order to be certified. "Purchasers, particularly in government, began specifying that the insulation they bought had to be EcoLogo certified," says McDougall. "Eventually, almost all the manufacturers could meet the original criterion. So we raised the bar on recycled content and added that the insulation must be formaldehyde free."
McDougall insists that EcoLogo is a better approach than the certification programs run by some individual industries because it assesses the lifecycle of a product. For instance, he notes that the Forest Stewardship Council recognizes companies that use environmentally sustainable practices for harvesting timber.
"The wood may come from a sustainable forestry operation, but everything else about the product may be dirty," says McDougall. "The paper could be produced in the heaviest-polluting mill in the country."
The rise in public concern over the environment in the past 18 to 24 months has been good for Terra Choice, but the 300 companies with certified products represent only a small minority within Canada's large resource and manufacturing sectors. Nevertheless, McDougall detects a discernible shift in attitudes within the business world.
The company recently completed an opinion survey among professional purchasing agents continent-wide. It revealed that 60 per cent work in organizations that have environmental or sustainability policies. More importantly, 50 per cent said they have green purchasing policies, up from about 30 per cent 18 months ago.
Still, McDougall continually sees examples of companies boarding the bandwagon when they haven't really paid the price of admission. "A big hardware retailer currently has a green catalogue and there are products in it that would not qualify for EcoLogo certification," he advises. "We're always coming across misuses of the logo by companies that are not certified, but apply it falsely. We have to chase them."
In short, consumers, small-business owners and purchasing agents in large organizations should beware the greenwashers.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)