Greenwashing, the act of using misleading marketing tactics that indicate environmental consciousness, is a growing problem in the advertising world. Due to the power and popularity of the environmental movement, more and more companies have begun to promote their products and services using false claims about ecological safety. How can we tell the difference between truly green businesses and those that are simply claiming to be green? Which businesses should we patronize and which should we avoid? Learning the tell-tale signs of greenwashing as well as the signs of a business’ sincere contribution to conservation is key to becoming a responsible consumer and environmental steward. Unfortunately, the definition of “green business” is not comprised of indisputable criteria. Many companies, like Procter and Gamble, straddle the ambiguous fence between eco-friendly and destructive.
Unless your household cleaning and personal care products are homemade, odds are you are a patron of the Procter and Gamble corporation. Not used to seeing that label? Well, P&G is an umbrella company that owns over 70 well-known brands, 26 of which saw a net profit of over 1 billion dollars in 2011. Recognizable names include Bounty, Charmin, Crest, Dawn, Downy, Duracell, Febreze, Gillette, Iams, Oral-B, Pampers, Pantene, Tide, and Vicks, just to name a few.
Multinational corporations like Procter and Gamble often produce a diverse array of products with different names, packaging designs, and marketing campaigns to appear unique and specialized, but when it comes down to it, they are all made by the same folks. My guess is that it’s easier to charge someone ten dollars for a razor with fancy packaging and an exotic name than one called “P&G Razor #4″.
Procter and Gamble, the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer, is usually heralded as a role model amongst Fortune 500 companies. With consistent growth, respected management, and profitability even in the face of recession, what’s not to love? While the functionality of its business model rarely falls victim to public criticism, its environmental impact has become a hot topic amongst conservationists and journalists alike. By the very nature of their business, can a consumer goods manufacturer not contribute to excess landfill material, rapid resource use, and general pollution?
According to Procter and Gamble, the answer is yes. Their corporate mission statement includes the claim “Environmental care is a top priority for us. We design sustainability into everything we do – our products, our processes, and our packages. We manufacture products that provide outstanding performance while simultaneously ensuring the highest standards of human and environmental safety”. Their marketing efforts reflect this green initiative as well, with many of their products being marked with the tagline “future-friendly”. Even their flagship website, pg.com, has a tab titled “sustainability” on the landing page, alongside “company,” “brands,” and “news and media”.
P&G’s message is clear – “going green” is a central part of its corporate culture. But just how accurate are these claims? A 2007 study conducted by Greenpeace International ranked Procter and Gamble at the top of a list of “Eco-Villains” based on its policies and products. PETA has largely criticized the company for its use of animal testing, and the Environmental Protection Agency has even taken P&G to court for the late installation of air pollution control equipment. These are just a few of the many conflicts and criticisms of Procter and Gamble’s environmental impact. On the flipside, there are also many parties that support and praise P&G’s self-proclaimed eco-friendliness. So which is it? A great, green business or a great, greenwashed public relations strategy? With reputable sources providing evidence on both sides of the argument, the conclusion is unclear. So let’s look at a few facts to get a better picture of what’s going on.
- Real Change: believe it or not, P&G has made some major changes that back up their green image. According to their 2011 Annual Report, between 2007 and 2011 they reduced energy expenditures by 16%, reduced CO2 emissions by 12%, reduced water usage by 22%, and reduced waste disposal by a whopping 57%. Wow. These are some serious numbers.
- Reputable Praise: amongst those who applaud P&G’s greenification are well-respected industry analysts. Joel Makower, a successful sustainable business strategist, pegs P&G’s sustainability efforts as highly superior to those of other major corporations. In 2010, the Associated Press called Makower “the guru of green business”. He knows his stuff! Also singing praise for Procter and Gamble is the China Entrepreneur Club, a research board of some of the most influential business leaders in China. After closely analyzing the practices of over 1000 companies, the CEC published its “2012 Top 100 Green Companies” list. Procter and Gamble ranked #7.
Like the above section, this part could be endless. From policies to practices to manufacturing techniques, environmental harming agents can be sought out along all parts of the supply chain. So for today, I’m focusing on products by conducting some unbiased primary research: I’m auditing my own stuff!
- Bounty: made from unrecycled paper. yikes.
- Pantene Pro-V detangler: no recycled packaging content, includes sulfates (creates air pollution)
- Tampax: non-biodegradable tampons, unrecycled packaging
- Downy: bottle made from 25% recycled plastic, not coldwater washing compatible, includes sulfates
- Oral-B floss: both unrecycled and unrecyclable
So this certainly isn’t a fair cross-section of Procter and Gamble products as they do manufacture some recyclable, energy-efficient, eco-friendly products (Cascade boxes are made from 90% recycled material, they have a line of Tide High Efficiency detergent for coldwater machines, etc.). However, the fact that some of their most popular and profitable brands are completely eco-unfriendly says something. Can they truly call themselves a future-friendly company just because some of their practices are green? They are still making over 1 billion dollars per year on brands like Bounty paper products that directly cause new and rapid deforestation and other environmental harm.
My conclusion is thus: Procter and Gamble has made significant strides toward becoming a more eco-friendly company, but they’re not completely off the hook when it comes to environmental practices. So I guess it depends on how you look at it. Compared to other major companies? Green. Compared to a few years ago? Super green. But “future-friendly”? Not entirely. If they reduce their energy and waste to close to nothing and start producing only eco-friendly products, not just some, I’ll stand behind them. Until then, I should probably make this collection of P&G products I found around the house my last!