Suspicious of marketing claims that a product is "eco-friendly" or "kind to the earth?"

A study released by a Toronto firm Monday suggests you're right to be. A survey of environmental claims involving more than 1,000 products found virtually all of them were false or misleading.

"We began to anecdotally observe a dramatic increase not only in the number of green claims in the marketplace, but also in the general lack of trustworthiness and effectiveness of much of that green marketing," said Stewart McDougall of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which conducted the study.

'Of the 1,018 products that made environmental claims, all but one committed at least one of the six sins.' —TerraChoice study

McDougall's firm — which manages the federal government's EcoLogo program — sent researchers into six large big-box retailers with instructions to record every environmental claim they could find. The nature of the claim and any supporting evidence was also recorded.

Those claims were then compared with guidelines on environmental marketing from five international and national governments and agencies. Deficiencies were noted and patterns sorted into what the report calls the six sins of greenwashing.

"Of the 1,018 products that made environmental claims, all but one committed at least one of the six sins," the report says.

Nearly two-thirds — 57 per cent — of the products relied on what the report calls a hidden tradeoff, suggesting a product is "green" on the basis of one attribute. McDougall offered as an example a paper product that uses recycled fibre, but the mill producing it fouls nearby rivers.

Touting environmentally sustainable practices is legitimate, but using them to distract from not-so-green behaviour is not, he said.

"The magician draws attention to his left hand so you don't see what his right hand is doing."

25% of claims made without supportingevidence

As well, in about one-quarter of cases, environmental claims were made about products without any supporting evidence. Lamp manufacturers claimed high-efficiency performance without showing certification. Shampoo producers said their products had not been tested on animals, but consumers weren't told how they could check that out.

The report also found that 11 per cent of claims made for green products were so vague they were meaningless.

"All-natural," boast some packages. "Arsenic is natural," the report points out.

Some claims were simply irrelevant, such as labelling a product "CFC-free." Chlorofluorocarbons — blamed for damaging the earth's ozone layer — have been banned by law for nearly three decades.

Some companies attempted to distract consumers from a product's big-picture health or environmental impact. Examples included "organic" cigarettes or "hybrid" SUVs. Some claims — less than one per cent in TerraChoice's study — were outright lies.

Study calls for independentcertifying board

Both consumers and marketers would benefit from third-party certification, said McDougall. Such a program would allow consumers to buy with confidence and marketers to build real brand loyalty.

Certifiers such as EcoLogo, the U.S.-based non-profit Green Seal program or industry specific initiatives such as the Forest Stewardship Council not only rate environmental impacts for different products, but also publish the criteria used to judge them.

"This is a much more effective shorthand source of confidence for consumers so they don't have to get into the scientific detail," said McDougall.