Seeing Past Greenwashing

With the concept of sustainability becoming more top of mind for most everyone, buzz words like "green," "eco-friendly" and others now permeate all facets of the business and consumer worlds, from advertisements to product packaging to marketing and signage on company doors and windows.

Naturally, in the realm of marketing both truths and embellishments exist. Known to many as "greenwashing," the embellishments seem to have increased just as much as the availability of green products. In fact, a 2009 report conducted by TerraChoice, a division of Underwriters Laboratories, found the total number of green-labeled products increased 73 percent that year, and 98 percent of the 2,219 products surveyed had committed at least one "sin," of greenwashing on their list.

"My definition of greenwashing is a company or individual who deliberately deceives the public to make them believe the company is doing more toward a commitment to sustainability than they actually are," says John Turenne, FCSI, president of Sustainable Food Systems, LLC.

So how do you know what's truly green — meaning the product won't hurt the environment and will make your business more environmentally friendly — and what's just a load of marketing? Here are a few guidelines for determining those products that walk the walk, and for thinking through a sustainably-focused project more holistically.

Researching Products

Researching truly green products is certainly challenging, says Turenne. Though experience helps him determine the green products from the greenwashing ones, he continues to turn to governmental entities and certification bodies that have done work verifying claims. "Green Seal is great for cleaning products and supplies and they now have a certification for food products," says Turenne, who assisted in the creation of this latter certification three years ago.

Green Seal, a more than 25-year-old, non-profit organization, developed a lengthy list of standards for a variety of industries and products with an environmental focus — in foodservice those relate most to cleaning products and food product packaging. Most recently, the organization created a standard for certifying green-forward restaurants and other food operations (GS-46).

"Green Seal certification seekers have increased a great deal in the last 8 to 10 years, though there was a slow down when the economy dropped off," says Mary Swanson, vice president of the certification program. The certification department reviews information on products or services and compares them against the Green Seal standards, which were developed by scientists and other researchers. The organization will then work with the company to meet all the criteria to achieve certification.

Part of the certification standards involve labeling and marketing claims. "We examine how a product presents itself to make sure they're not making claims that are not true or that we can't verify," Swanson says. Green Seal closely follows the Federal Trade Commission guidelines for environmental marketing established in the nineties, which were revised in October 2012 (specifically, 16 CFR Part 260 Version VII). For Green Seal-certified labels, in addition to avoiding false claims, they must also have clear directions for use, such as diluting in cold water not hot, and communicate all other precautions and safety measures.

Aside from Green Seal and the FTC guidelines, some products have certification from EcoLogo, founded in 1988, and approved by the Global Ecolabeling Network, an international association of eco-labeling programs. This certification meets the ISO 14024 standard for environmental labels and declarations.

Cleaning Products

When it comes to green cleaning products, common complaints center on performance. Green Seal centers its standards on that benchmark as a result, Swanson says. "We don't want to promote green products if they don't work as well or better than conventional products."

In addition, Green Seal studies the chemical ingredients of submitted products as they relate to human health and environmental impact. Green Seal also has limits on VOC levels that might impact indoor air quality, smog or respiratory health. While Green Seal is not required for purchasing green products, following these guidelines can help sort out the truly green from the greenwashed.

Holistic Thinking

When it comes to purchasing "sustainable" equipment that saves water and/or energy, Energy Star certainly has become the go-to designation for zeroing in on the most efficient pieces, but simply running out to purchase those products is not always necessary, according to Michael Berard, FCSI, of Commercial Kitchen Consulting, LLC. Berard takes a more holistic approach when examining a kitchen and possible water, waste and energy reductions.

"I don't look at Energy Star as much as I look at the return on investment for the end-user of each piece," he says. "I look at it as how much hot water use can we cut down on to run this particular unit."

To determine energy needs and potential areas of savings, Berard first conducts an energy audit to pinpoint peak usage times and make strategic adjustments, but does not just run out and buy Energy Star equipment, per se.

Take, for example, an old six-burner electric hot top range. Berard first looks at the existing unit's kilowatt usage and then compares it to the energy consumption of a six-burner gas range to determine which piece of equipment will provide the better return on investment. "Businesses in certain areas of the country pay a demand rate for their electricity based on peak demand load," he says. "Schools, for example, might see their peak demand level skyrocket during breakfast or lunch service, and then they will pay based on that peak level."

To offset those loads, Berard might recommend switching from electric equipment to gas in certain areas, or replacing an old, poor-performing dish machine. Other times, he'll simply upgrade a hot water booster, which for some clients has resulted in an energy reduction of a third during the peak load hour.

Right-Size Equipment

Taking a more holistic approach to the purchasing — or not — of green-labeled products also involves right-sizing the kitchen to meet the minimum level of volume, energy and water usage needs, according to Berard. That might mean investing in one high-performance fryer versus two energy-saving ones, for example. This entails really zeroing in on the menu and kitchen operations to see what's necessary and what's not.

"If I'm replacing equipment, I'm certainly not going to just put an Energy Star piece in the space allowed if the customer doesn't have use for it or it doesn't fit into the operation," he says. "If the customer only requires a three-pan steamer, I'm not going to put in a five-pan steamer just because it's Energy Star-rated."

Study Performance Testing

Wading through the ocean of green-labeled products becomes a little easier when performance test results are noted.

"I often visit The Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) website and take a look at testing and requirements for different equipment before making recommendations," Berard says.

Life of the Product

The green test doesn't end at the product's performance alone. Examining the manufacturing, packaging and disposal processes are just as important, says Turenne. Green Seal also takes these areas into consideration.

"We look at the life cycle of the product — if it's recyclable, or made with renewable energy, for example, and we look at all the aspects of the manufacturer's production, shipping and disposal of a product," says Swanson.

When it comes to wading through greenwashing, Turenne recommends trying to remember the "triple bottom line" — the national environment, economic vitality and healthy communities. "Sustainability does not need to be about inefficient business management, or about not earning a fair profit," he says. "Business is founded on fair trade. But let's not sacrifice our environment, local economy or health at the expense of the almighty dollar."