Build Your Business:

Are You Guilty of Greenwashing?

December 22, 2014

Have you heard the term “greenwashing” before? While “whitewashing” is defined as a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts, greenwashing has been coined to describe the effort a company may make to appear to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, but, in fact, their efforts don’t really add up to any substance.  

The problem usually lies with a company’s marketing campaign or how it positions itself in the marketplace. A company may use descriptive words such as “eco,” “green,” “friendly,” “earth,” “kind” or “gentle” to position it or its products as sustainable. These can sound green, but in reality, it’s just marketing hyperbole. The motive may truly center on marketplace positioning, not doing something better for customers or the environment.

For example, if you are simply printing on an organic cotton T-shirt with water-based ink and marketing your company as sustainable, you may be guilty of greenwashing. Why? Let’s dig a little deeper.

A company that is leading best industry practices for sustainability will go the extra mile to obtain a third-party seal or certification. This ensures it follows operational guidelines, makes good choices and has allowed an independent auditor to come in and — using predetermined criteria — score its efforts. Those companies that meet the rating get the seal or certification.

In the printing industry, the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) is the certification of choice. Another common sustainability certification is ISO 14001. For products or brands, you may have seen the following third-party seals on packaging or labels: EcoLogo, Green Seal, Energy Star and WaterSense.

Getting certified means a company doesn’t just talk about sustainability, but that it actually makes conscious decisions regarding how things are run, products it uses, operational choices it makes and training its staff receives. These seals or certifications aren’t simply handed out like jelly beans. To obtain one, certain strict demands must be met, procedures and policies must be in place, and best-in-industry practices that must be followed. That’s the value in achieving the certification; it sets you apart from everyone else and illustrates your leadership.

However, there are plenty of companies with great sustainability programs that either don’t have the certification yet or aren’t interested in doing the work to obtain one. That’s OK. Look for transparency with their programs and a source for more information. See if you can find their metrics on their websites, a downloadable whitepaper or another link to the facts.  

There’s an old business adage that states, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Any sustainability program worth its salt has some metrics associated with it. Companies measure things to see improvement. How much energy was saved? How many tons of material didn’t go to a landfill because of recycling? How much carbon was reduced?  

Martine Padilla, executive director for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, says, “The easiest way to find out if a company has a real sustainability program is to just ask simple questions. Do you have a sustainability committee? Have you written a sustainability mission statement? Where is it located? What is your overall thinking regarding sustainability for your company?” Answering these questions is key to determining how robust your sustainability program is within your company.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released some guidelines (found at for companies that market their services or products as green. These guidelines are built to allow companies to make better decisions and avoid making environmental claims that are unfair or deceptive under current law.  

Yes, this means you can get into some hot water with the FTC if you stray into making false claims. In 2013, four national retailers (Sears, Amazon, Macy’s and Leon Max) were penalized $1.26 million for falsely labeling products made from rayon as being made from bamboo. Don’t let this happen to you. Honesty always is the best policy.

TerraChoice ( released its “7 Sins of Greenwashing” to help ferret out the problem. Following is a version that’s paraphrased for the decorated apparel industry:

Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off. This is committed by suggesting a product is green based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. For example, bamboo-sourced apparel has been touted as being environmentally friendly, but it actually uses a considerably larger amount of water than other fiber sources, as the bamboo fibers naturally are too short to be spun into yarn. Water and chemicals are introduced to help the process, so bamboo requires more resources to be made into material than other fabric types.

Sin of No Proof. This is committed by an environmental claim that cannot be supported by easily accessible supporting information or a reliable third-party certification. This also is when your shop claims to have a sustainability program or offer a sustainable product line, but doesn’t back up the claim with any supporting evidence, metrics or certifications. This is easy to correct, as you can post the information on your website or obtain a certification through the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (

Sin of Vagueness. This is when every claim is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. Touting water-based ink as being a greener alternative to plastisol, for example, could be misconstrued by the consumer, as it actually uses more energy to cure, has more waste ink in the process, and requires different emulsion and care that a lot of shops are not adequately set up to run consistently. It’s not greener; it’s just different.

Sin of Irrelevance. Companies committing this sin are making an environmental claim that may be truthful, but is unimportant or unhelpful to consumers seeking environmentally preferable choices. Advertising lead-free ink could be an example, as virtually all textile inks currently used in the apparel decorating industry are manufactured without lead, and subject to regulation according to Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) standards.

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils. Certain claims may be true within a product category, but they may risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole. Advertising 50/50 apparel blanks made from recycled plastic bottles, but are made overseas and imported into the United States, is a good example of this.

Sin of Fibbing. Simply put, this is committed by making claims that are most certainly false. For example, if you promote your company as an SGP- or ISO-certified green printer, but it actually is not, you are guilty of this.

Sin of Worshipping False Labels. This is committed when a product, via words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement, where no such endorsement actually exists. Translation: Fake labels. An example could be where you simply invent your sustainability claims for your product line or shop that simply aren’t accurate. Calling something “eco” doesn’t make it true, even if it has a really great logo.

For shops that want to start a sustainability program — or simply give an existing program a boost — here are a few tips to get started:

Form a sustainability committee. Gather some key stakeholders in your company and form a brain trust to build your program. Start with asking questions. Why do you need a sustainability program? What will the benefits be? What are some easy things you can do to score some quick sustainable touchdowns? Who will be responsible for each task? Set some goals.

Get an energy audit. Most utility companies offer this service for free and will visit your shop for an audit. They will write a report that details important items for your shop and give you a “grocery list” of recommendations to handle.

Look to your equipment. A lot of shops have older or outdated equipment. Take some time to look and see if upgrading to newer models or a different method will save you money. Just because something works now doesn’t mean there isn’t a better option available that will lower your operating costs, speed your workflow and increase your employees’ satisfaction with their jobs. Don’t just “put up with it” like you have for years; replace that outdated equipment with newer — and probably better — equipment.  

Look for air leaks from your compressors. It’s been estimated that for every air leak in your shop, you are spending $600 annually to keep your air compressor cycling so that the pressure constant. If you can hear it, fix it.

Start a recycling program. This should not be limited to soda cans and plastic water bottles, but it can include other materials, too. Build a way to keep track of the metrics. You actually can make some money doing this, as recyclers may pay you for your cardboard, metal or polybag remnants. Recycling also means less material going to landfills, so you can reduce your dumpster pickup frequency, which also saves you money.

Talk to your supply chain. Many companies have products that can help lower your volatile organic compounds (VOC), improve your production while using less consumable materials or other solutions. You won’t know about it unless you ask.

Research local, state or national sustainability programs. Your area may offer guidance, training, low-interest loans — even free grant money — for starting or implementing sustainable ideas for your company.

Get certified through the SGP. This is a great way to be an industry leader and leverage your work on sustainability. Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) offers a peer-to-peer network that features webinars designed to walk shop owners through the process of getting certified and building their programs. Find more information at

In the end, take a step back and look at your company through the eyes of your customers or even the federal government. If your sustainability program doesn’t quite meet the smell test, maybe you should change directions and implement something that is on a firmer foundation by building a program that works.

If you need help or advice on how to get started, or the benefits of getting certified through the SGP, I would be happy to help you. Just send me an email and let’s get started today.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee, Wis. A frequent contributor to Impressions, Marshall also lectures on sustainability at Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) events and has participated in numerous industry webinar panel discussions. He is on the board of directors for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP), and serves on the SGIA Leadership Committee. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at

A Green Offense

Sustainability is a journey through continuous improvement. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be accurate in how you represent your claims.  

Nowadays, more companies are looking to capitalize on the focus of the ever-increasing need to source apparel decoration through a greener supply chain. If you market to the retail sector, you will be constantly seeing this and hearing about it through purchasing managers — if you haven’t already. Most companies start a sustainability program as a defensive measure to lower operating costs and become stronger.

Obtaining a third-party certification through SGP or ISO leverages your work into an offensive posture, as your sustainability program becomes a marketable skill. Retail buyers already are looking for SGP-certified printers to help with their needs. This is when your sustainability program becomes a competitive edge.
— M.A.