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The Dangerous Implications of Greenwashing

I recently got an “IMPORTANT TAX RETURN DOCUMENT” in the mail from Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC. On the back of the envelope, I found an eco-looking tree logo with the message, “Choose eDelivery: Save trees. Save time.” I personally find messages like this annoying because they are self-serving and deceiving, and they intentionally badmouth print. They fit in a category known as “greenwashing.” 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing, in short, is the process of delivering a false environmental message intended to deceive consumers by making unsubstantiated claims. Also known as “green sheen,” greenwashing is intended to persuade consumers that the organization’s products and policies are environmentally friendly. 

In the case of the mailing I received, Fidelity is denigrating print by saying, in essence, “If you have your statement sent to you electronically rather than in print, you can save a tree.” The implication is that using paper results in the loss of trees and forests. Greenwashing purveyors miss the point that trees are a renewable resource that can be managed effectively like a farm crop. Greenwashing claims are particularly insidious because the companies that ask you to go electronic to save a tree are generally trying to save production and mailing costs rather than attempting to be truly environmentally conscious. Many customers still wish to receive bills, statements, and reminders in print because they rely on the printed format, and they trust it. This type of greenwashing message also ignores the fact that electronic methods of delivery have their own environmental impacts. 

Two Sides North America’s Anti-Greenwashing Campaign

Two Sides North America is a non-profit organization and part of a global TwoSides network that “endeavors to reinforce confidence in the Graphic Communications and Paper-based Packaging industry.” Two Sides includes more than 600 member companies across North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. In March of this year, Two Sides NA announced some early successes from its 2023 anti-greenwashing campaign. According to a press release, the campaign has “eliminated literally billions of instances of paper-related greenwashing in the United States and Canada” associated with utilities, banks, and insurers. In January and February, Two Sides North American convinced seven companies representing 40 million customers to remove “go green, go paperless, protect the environment” messages from their marketing communications. Of course there is more work to be done, as can be seen when large financial institutions like Fidelity continue to use greenwashing to deceive their customers. 

Kathi Rowzie, President of Two Sides North America, noted, “In addition to misleading consumers, these types of unsubstantiated environmental claims pose a serious threat to the economic security of the more than 7 million people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy North American paper, printing, and mailing sector.” To that end, Two Sides believes that its anti-greenwashing campaign has preserved more than $300 million in annual revenue for the paper, printing, and mailing sector over the past decade. Rowzie adds, “Paper is one of the few products on earth that already has an environmentally sustainable, circular lifecycle. North American paper is made from an infinitely renewable natural resource—trees that are purpose-grown, harvested, and regrown in sustainably managed forests. It’s manufactured using mostly renewable, carbon-neutral bioenergy in a process that uses water, but in reality, consumes very little of it. And paper products are recycled more than any other material. But many consumers believe paper is bad for the environment because corporations and other organizations that they trust are telling them so. Two Sides is working hard to change that.” 

The Bottom Line

Greenwashing is a threat to the printing industry. Sadly, greenwashing claims may seem believable at first to the average consumer. As a member of the industry, you can help combat this with facts and education. Leverage the anti-greenwashing work of Two Sides North America and its greenwashing fact sheet entitled “Go Green, Go PaperlessMessages Are Misleading: The Facts About Greenwashing. Support them by becoming a member if you can. In addition, if you come across greenwashing claims that put print in a bad light, take a photo or copy a link and e-mail it to info@twosidesna.org. Two Sides has resolved issues like this in the past and intends to continue doing so as we move into the future. Greenwashing can be misleading and damaging, but Two Sides can help. 

Source: Jim Hamilton, Consultant Emeritus at Keypoint Intelligence 

Author bio: Jim Hamilton of Green Harbor Publications is an industry analyst, market researcher, writer, and public speaker. For many years, he was Group Director in charge of Keypoint Intelligence’s (formerly InfoTrends’) Production Digital Printing & Publishing consulting services. He has a BA in German from Amherst College and a Master’s in Printing Technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology. 

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