Walking through the exhibit floor at Greenbuild last year, Scot Case was surprised by the amount of misleading or inaccurate environmental claims he encountered at the respected conference on sustainable building. "I just assumed greenwashing would be less prevalent at that show," says Case, vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. "What I found was the exact opposite. Absolutely everyone was making some sort of environmental claim," including companies that should not.

Case found that just one simple query was often enough to bring those claims under a discerning microscope: "What proof do you have to support that claim?" he asked. "Very few had an answer to that question. That sends a very strong warning that people should be very skeptical of the environmental claims happening in this space."

In an atmosphere where many consumers are ready to lay out hefty sums for products they consider green, companies are playing up every aspect of their product that is healthy for the environment. This is not something that is just happening at Greenbuild, but at all major trade shows, in advertising, on Web sites, and so on. In so doing, some manufacturers are taking their claims too far and, intentionally or not, misleading buyers. It's what Greenpeace defines as "greenwashing": the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. The practice could lead to problems for building professionals who find customers more cynical about green products—and who face the risk of becoming misled themselves.

Green Sins

What does it take to be labeled a greenwasher? The term, derived from whitewash (meaning to cover up a fault or error), seems to attribute a sinister motive to the transgressor. But not all experts see an intention to deceive in the practice. "For some people, greenwashing is out-and-out fraud," says Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com and GreenerBuildings.com. "For others, it's an exaggeration or something that's not put in proper perspective. I think what's out there is less greenwashing than sloppiness."

Makower says some firms are overselling in an attempt to tout their green credentials. "What I see ... is an epidemic of vagueness. There are a lot of companies using claims that either don't mean anything, sound too good to be true, or both."

It's not difficult for pros to spot such examples of greenwashing—most types of environmental claims are so common that Case's TerraChoice released a study called "The Six Sins of Greenwashing" that detailed the most common types of false or misleading claims. The organization tested 1,018 products from big box stores that made environmental claims and found that all but one committed at least one of the six sins.

"One of the popular sins was people trying to focus my attention on a very specific, very narrow environmental claim," Case says. This, the most common sin, made by 57 percent of claims in the study, is the "sin of the hidden tradeoff": suggesting a product is "green" based on a single environmental attribute without attention to other important environmental issues.

One example at the show, Case says, was a floor covering manufacturer focusing on recycled content. "But I could smell the formaldehyde on that product," Case says, a problem that the product's competitors already addressed.