weekly feature | Jun 21, 2023 |
‘A tremendous amount of distrust’: How greenwashing is impacting the home industry

Over the past decade, the demand for green products has skyrocketed, and so too has the supply. The surge in consumer interest has inspired companies large and small to go all in on their eco-friendly bona fides—giants like Williams-Sonoma and Ikea have invested big money in concepts like circularity and sustainable materials, while smaller brands like bedding company Coyuchi or DTC paint brand Clare have made efforts to get their products certified by third party organizations. That’s a great thing. At the same time, the market has been flooded with companies that want to cash in without actually changing their manufacturing or business practices, slapping vague terms like “environmentally friendly” or “nontoxic” on their wares without backing up their claims.

“Greenwashing is [a practice] adopted by companies who want to be allied with a positive response from consumers by using a certain kind of language to describe their product,” says Alison Mears, director and co-founder of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. “They can do that without any kind of consequences. You can say your product is white when it’s actually black because nobody is going to come back and say, ‘But wait a second, it’s actually black.’ Especially when it comes to sustainability terms, there aren’t controls over the kind of language that is used, the definition of ‘sustainable,’ and the meaning of ‘green’ and ‘nontoxic.’ So, people use this spin to try to be associated with a more desirable section of the marketplace. It’s false advertising, essentially.”

While customers can make complaints or even bring lawsuits against companies for greenwashing (like the class action suit that’s currently playing out against mattress brand Avocado), Mears is right—there isn’t a regulatory body that screens products for toxicity or environmental impact before it hits the market, nor is there a consensus on terminology or compliance standards for using those terms. There is no equivalent of “USDA Organic” for a sofa. The closest thing that the home sector has to sustainability regulations are voluntary third-party product certifications like Greenguard, the Global Organic Textile Standard, Forest Stewardship Council and Cradle to Cradle, among others, that verify a product’s origins, material or makeup—all of which are entirely optional and require companies to pay fees to maintain.

Greenwashing is not specific to the U.S. It’s a global issue—and one that the European Union recently announced an intent to tackle. In March, the EU issued the Directive on Green Claims, a notice of proposed legislation that aims to stop companies from making misleading claims about the eco-merits of their products. While it may take a few years to become law, the proposed rule would set clear criteria on how companies have to prove their environmental claims and create requirements for claims and labels to be checked by an independent and accredited party. The response has been mixed—some critics say it goes too far and others say it doesn’t go far enough—but broadly speaking, many agree that some legislation to tackle greenwashing is better than none.

Mears sees the rulemaking as an important step forward. “This potential legislation really simplifies the process and allows consumers to start to trust the information that they’ve been given and make a decision based on that,” she says. “It really would protect consumers.”

Jennifer Easton, founder of Philadelphia-based Sway, a marketplace that curates healthy and sustainable products meeting third-party standards, is also hopeful that the EU will lead the way on cracking down on false green claims. “What we’ve been lacking on both the brand side and the consumer side is a harmonization of standards—a standardized way to make and substantiate claims related to environmentalism and human health,” she says. “Every brand is put into a position of figuring out, ‘What does “eco-friendly” mean to us? What does sustainability mean to us?’ And then every brand has a different methodology for proving those things, whether that’s how they’re calculating carbon footprint or testing for toxins. This would save both manufacturers and consumers time and give them a road map for how to make their products more sustainable and healthier.”

Stateside, the government stance on greenwashing is predictably less aggressive but not nonexistent. The Federal Trade Commission does have a policy on the issue and it’s currently in the process of being updated, after recently closing a period for public comment in April. It’s the first time the FTC has revised its Green Guides since 2012. “If you think about how much green claims have changed over the last decade, it’s so much more complex and sophisticated now,” says Stephanie Erwin, the vice president of strategy, impact and people at the American Sustainable Business Network. “Terms like ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘circular’ aren’t touched on in the guide from 2012. These guides just aren’t reviewed enough in the U.S. to really keep up with the conversation.”

The clean beauty movement offers a good case study of how drastically consumer demand can reshape an industry. Fifteen years ago, most consumers didn’t even know what “parabens” were—now there’s an entire section of Sephora devoted to “clean” products made without ingredients like parabens, formaldehyde and sulfates. Not coincidentally, the Food & Drug Administration passed the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 in December, a sweeping law that requires product ingredients to be reported to the FDA and gives the agency the ability to issue product recalls. It’s the first time the U.S. has updated cosmetic regulations since 1938. The purchasing power of a more informed consumer pushed the market in a certain direction and the government, eventually, followed suit. It’s not hard to imagine that the same could happen in the home sector.

An updated version of the FTC’s guide may give both manufacturers and consumers a better playbook when it comes to green claims, but there’s also hope that the EU’s law will have a trickle-down effect across the global marketplace, leveling the playing field for consumers and businesses alike. “We think this is good for business, because the current lack of clarity, the vagueness, the lack of definitions, the lack of proof required to say something is ‘sustainable’—all that has done is created a tremendous amount of distrust by consumers,” says David Levine, the co-founder and president of the American Sustainable Business Network.

There’s also the likelihood that competition from European manufacturers will force the issue for U.S. companies. “From a consumer standpoint, wouldn’t you want to buy from Ikea rather than Home Depot if they’re conforming to a more transparent standard?” says Mears. “I hope it prompts U.S. manufacturers to up their game so consumers can reap the benefit of better products.”

Homepage image: ©Oleksandr/Adobe Stock

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