Greenwashing and CBC: some final thoughts

Well, that ten-post greenwashing series was a bit more work than I had anticipated, but interesting. I learned a lot, so I think that makes it worthwhile. After all, that is the point of this site!

I noticed some common threads running through nearly every item on the Marketplace list, which I've also seen and heard elsewhere. The main one is a fundamental misunderstanding of chemistry. I've lost count of how many times I've heard people in other context using "chemicals" as a blanket term for something bad. It's as if they don't realize that water is a chemical, vitamin C is a chemical, every micro- and macro-nutrient in food are chemicals, everything made of matter—beneficial, harmful, or neutral—is made of chemicals.

And they probably truly don't realize it.

Being a chemical engineer I've been so immersed in chemistry I sometimes forget that after about grade ten general science class, chemistry of any kind becomes optional. A lot of people, probably most people, don't take chemistry and don't have anything more to do with chemistry after that—sometimes to the point of not knowing the difference between an atom and a molecule.

Unfortunately, this seems to lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of what is natural and what is healthy—and what is environmentally friendly. In turn, that makes it really challenging to make informed decisions on those subjects.

At this point, I should probably reiterate my disclaimer from the first post, lest somebody claim a conflict of interest in my interest here. I have no connection with any of the companies or products listed in this series. I don't work in household products at all, in fact. I spend my days doing industrial scale environmental cleanup type work—mostly prevention lately, but I have done remediation as well. I'll also add that if some new, quality research comes to light that contradicts any of my conclusions in the previous ten posts, I'll update the relevant post accordingly as soon as I learn about it.

I'm actually more disappointed in Marketplace than I am in most people who don't understand these things, for two reasons. First, Marketplace probably has the budget to find a good expert to help them and their viewers understand this stuff—and if they don't know where to look, then they should go ask their colleague Bob McDonald: that guy has a team that can find experts in fields you didn't even know existed, and he's really good at explaining things. Second and more importantly, Marketplace have a good reputation for exposing actual problems. I had expected a higher level of accuracy from them, as well as a lower level of gullibility.

Now I'm not saying that all of the products they featured aren't greenwashing. If you read through the series, I concluded that some of them most definitely are.

But I said "gullibility" on purpose—Marketplace, who are all about questioning the claims of companies trying to sell you something, didn't question the person they presented as an expert, but took everything the "expert" said as gospel. The "expert" wrote a book—well, that makes for visibility, but writing a book doesn't make you an expert. There are no lack of books out there with factual errors, misleading information, and sometimes even dangerous advice, especially in the books trying to sell an idea. (I'm looking at you, diet and supplement industry—but that's far from the only one.) There's no minimum standard of knowledge before people can present themselves as an environmental activist, sustainability consultant, or similar. What expertise backs up this person's book? Why didn't Marketplace ask somebody who knew more than high school level chemistry to explain what was going on? It's not as if any of the stuff I found is secret, it's all publicly available and I found it in the hours outside of my day job. If the author has studied chemistry beyond high school, it's not on the CV page: anthropology, politics, and journalism are. This sounds like a great combination for expertise in consumer patterns and the social ramifications of our choices, but not so much on chemistry and toxicity effects, and that seems to be where most of my problems with the show lie. (Also, it seems we share a couple of pet peeves: antibacterial soap and idling.)

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of an anonymous blogger calling somebody out for not presenting relevant credentials. This is one of the reasons I offer links to the resources I draw on to make claims, so you can read the same studies I did to see why I drew the conclusions that I did. I'm not saying "believe me because I say so," I'm saying "here are the data and the studies I looked at and this is what I conclude from them.")

Another common thread that ran through many of the items was a pair of fallacies that I see pretty regularly among people who want to be environmentally conscious, who mean well, and who have little to no understanding of science and especially of chemistry: the Nirvana Fallacy and the Appeal to Nature Fallacy. Not only that, the author they discussed the products with carried both of them.

The Appeal to Nature Fallacy (the belief that things which are natural are safe) is one they briefly addressed in their first item, (#10) Raid EarthBlends, when the "expert" said that "natural doesn't always mean safe", but in other items used that same fallacy as a criticism. One only has to consider the plants who have "poison" right in their names, or remember the warnings about not eating wild berries or mushrooms unless you positively recognize them, to realize that natural isn't always safe. (I occasionally wonder how much overlap there is between the people who think that something is safe because it's natural, and the people who panic about common decorative plants being poisonous to kids and pets. How much cognitive dissonance would one have to deal with to hold both of those ideas simultaneously?)

In fact, not only do many people erroneously believe that "natural" means "safe", there are also a lot of people who believe that "natural" means "plant-based". Rock salt, to take an example from this series, is perfectly natural. You dig it up, and there it is: chunks of solid sodium chloride mixed with various minerals that happened to be present when it was deposited.

The Nirvana Fallacy wasn't addressed, so they may not realize they have it. This one can be summarized as the belief that if something isn't perfect, it's crap—seen explicitly in #9, Sunlight Green Clean when the author complains that the detergent is only 62% plant-based. (Note that the detergent ingredients listed are normally 0% plant-based.) It can be a dangerous attitude when applied to environmentalism, because it rejects improvements, no matter how large, if they aren't 100% perfect. That discourages many from even trying. Recycling your bottles isn't going to save the world, so why bother? This is nonsense, of course. Reducing waste, or energy consumption, or non-renewables use is worthwhile. Striving for better is worthwhile. Better isn't perfect, but it's an important step along the way, and perfect may be unattainable, either with our current technology or by the laws of physics.

Another trend is bad assumptions. There were a couple of glaring ones in there, particularly that something sold explicitly as a poison is likely to be safe and that green bins take whatever you think they take without checking the details of your city's program.

I may have made a couple of bad assumptions myself, when I said in my first post of this series that "nobody can reasonably pretend that it's not a poison" about the bug-killing spray. Or maybe the key word there was "reasonably". Was I giving the general public too much credit by assuming that they would understand that something sold as a poison might be not good for them? I hope I wasn't, but Marketplace sure seems to be telling me that I was. There's a good chance that Marketplace is a better judge of what the average household goods shopper knows and assumes than I am.

Somewhat less obvious, and something I think Marketplace has an excellent point on, is about all those seals that companies are putting on their products. They're just marketing graphics unless they have all of the following properties:

  1. it names the standards organization that issued the seal
  2. it names the standard that it meets
  3. the standard defines something relevant to the claim
  4. the product is tested to ensure it meets the standard

I hope the first two items are obvious. The third one has been played many times in the past and I'm sure it will be many times in the future. An example of a real standard that has been used to claim something it doesn't describe is good old ISO 9001. ISO 9001 is a very useful standard. It's a process for defining and auditing procedures and consistency in following them, leading to consistency in whatever product or service is labelled with the seal, so that a product made on night shift is exactly the same as a product made on day shift, and both are to the product spec. It does not say anything about the quality of that product beyond that it meets whatever legal requirements apply to it, only its consistency. I remember for a while some companies were parading the ISO 9001 certification around as though it meant that they had higher quality product than companies without the certification. (I haven't seen that for quite a while, thankfully. I guess enough people caught on.) For the fourth item, well, if the product isn't actually tested, how do you know it really does meet the standard?

Another common thread through this episode was what looked like a distinct lack of Marketplace's usual level of research. I could be wrong (as the ten segments were very short) but it looked like the research Marketplace did consisted of phoning the companies to ask them one or two questions, sending two samples off for bio-based assessment but not having anyone interpret the results, linking to the EC and USEPA studies on a few of the chemicals but not having any interpretation (and this chemical engineer found them pretty heavy reading), and asking the author for an opinion but not questioning any of those statements. If they did more research, they didn't show it. Normally I expect more from Marketplace.

I certainly found a lot more than they even hinted at looking for, and it wasn't hard to find.

Typing the product name and "MSDS" is a good way to find either a full ingredients list (which some companies put in their MSDS documents) or a list of hazardous ingredients (which is required by law). Keep in mind that something in the list because it's a hazardous ingredient isn't necessarily hazardous at the concentration in the mixture. 2% hydrogen peroxide stings a bit and cleans your wounds. 50% hydrogen peroxide causes extremely painful chemical burns. I don't see an attempt to ban 2% peroxide due to the dangers of 50% peroxide.

If you're looking for information on how dangerous something is, MSDS documents are great. The whole point of an MSDS is to tell you the worst case possible scenario and how to protect yourself from extended exposure. They're aimed at the people who work with the product in the factory, which is to say at people who have vastly more exposure to the product than your average consumer buying the product for home use, both in concentration and duration. Quite a few of the products had their MSDS right on the product page. Vim was the only liquid product I couldn't find an MSDS for, though Marketplace say they got a copy on asking for an ingredients list. The solid products seemed to be more about the process, so instead of MSDS pages I had to find processes, which generally came from a third party where the MSDS came direct from the manufacturer.

For individual ingredients, I found a mix of things, from manufacturer's safety information to Environment Canada's Chemical Substances website, which is a fantastic resource that I hadn't known existed before I started writing this series. For the chemicals in its database, it has loads of information on toxicity, environmental toxicity, bioaccumulation, biodegradation, and other health, safety, and environmentally relevant properties—and a short and sweet non-technical summary for the concerned general public. The chemicals in this database are the ones the government needs to know about in order to regulate, which means it's mostly filled with toxic or environmentally hazardous chemicals.

I think this episode would have been much improved if they'd done a few things differently. First, finding an expert on the chemicals—maybe somebody from Environment Canada who was involved in assessing the environmental impacts of the various ingredients and could speak competently on the chemistry, toxicity, and so on. Second, filtering the list down to the ones that actually were greenwashing, and not damaging their case by complaining about the toxicity of a product that's explicitly sold as a poison, highlighting a discontinued product, or complaining about the toxicity of a product that is well below the threshold for any detectable effect. There were other cases where I disagreed with their assessment or focus, but those ones were just ridiculous and I think damaged their credibility.

If instead they had focussed on the products where they had a strong case and expanded on those with some more detail, again with experts who know something about the chemistry and environmental effects beyond that author's "ewww, funky chemical processing" and dropping the subject, they could have had a really strong show.

For example, a show that included:

#6, bamboo rayon, with a bit more information about how the end product is exactly the same as conventional (wood pulp) rayon and how the processing eliminates the unique benefits of (non-rayon) bamboo fiber, which isn't nearly as soft. Optional bonus would be comparing it to other fabrics and their environmental impacts; for example cotton requires a lot of water and fertilizer and has its own harmful impacts. (This would be really hard, because the environmental impacts of rayon vs. cotton vs. wool or other textiles are all different and can't be directly and easily compared.)
#5, "98% natural" but 95% water.
#4, beet-enhanced rock salt, with a look at whether following the application instructions really does result in less salt in the environment as the company claimed.

Only three from their original list. I'm sure there are other blatant cases of household product greenwashing out there, but of the ten in this episode, I saw three that had a strong case and three that were ridiculous as presented.

The segment on the bug spray could have been much improved by focussing on and explaining the appeal to nature fallacy (and then not using that fallacy themselves later in the show) with a look at what beneficial bugs it's most toxic to and thus why it's banned in some places for outdoor use, and pointing out that there's nothing new or "alternative" about using pyrethrin as an insecticide. Traditional, maybe. What do you think farmers used to spray their crops with before chemical synthesis really took off? In hindsight, I'm a bit on the fence now about whether this one is greenwashing or not. Raid certainly doesn't make any claim that it's non-toxic and still explicitly sells it as a poison so I don't see any lies, but the differentiation between EarthBlends and the other Raid lines seems to be purely in the active ingredient being "natural" pyrethrin versus the "unnatural" pyrethroids (synthesized chemicals related to pyrethrin) so it's clear they're targeting the appeal to nature fallacy in some way. "Safer" perhaps, but not "safe", because it's still explicitly being sold as a poison. It still has pictures of dead bugs on the label.

The remaining four are less clear:

#9, with converting a typically 100% petroleum-based product to a 62% plant-based product
#3, where the coating that Marketplace pointed out as problematic not actually being what differentiates the environmentally friendly line from the other product lines, and all the others have the same environmental claim sticker Marketplace focussed on
#2, where the problem isn't that the product isn't biodegradable, the problem is that not all cities take the same things in their green bin program and a lot of people, the company rep on the phone included, made assumptions without checking what the particular city accepted
#1, where one product in the family is used successfully to rescue birds and the product advertised with that use contains an ingredient that harms aquatic invertebrates and fish but not birds

Each one of this set has some problems, some more than others, but it isn't as strong a case for greenwashing as Marketplace made it out to be.

Some of them could be made stronger; for example, pulling a T-Fal frying pan that wasn't the Natura line which still used the same coating, to focus on the point that the "no PFOA" claim didn't mean they'd found a way to avoid its use in the factory. Because really, if I wanted to buy a teflon-coated frying pan, T-Fal has a good reputation for making decent cookware, and since all their teflon pans have the same "no PFOA" (remaining) claim, the Natura's selling point over the rest of the T-Fal line is the recycled aluminium—which is a big environmental benefit over virgin aluminium.

Others look almost like a case of the manufacturer picking the wrong product in the line to put the advertising on; for example, if Dawn had put their ducky labelling on their regular, non-antibacterial soap, triclosan wouldn't be one of the ingredients. I would support a ban on general household use of antibacterials due to their environmental toxicity to bacteria and other micro-organisms, because it won't happen without a ban—too many people believe that they need antibacterial soap, or that it's somehow better, and companies that make antibacterial soaps and other products are both fulfilling and creating that perceived need.

10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection bath mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt ice remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial dish soap
Final thoughts

And now, I think I need to find something easy to post about for next week.

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