Many companies today have social responsibility strategies. Advertising ethical and pro-environment policies can win over customers. But how can buyers separate "greenwashing" from fact?
In an average German supermarket there are usually a range of brands to choose from within each product group. Many of the brands flaunt special labels on their packaging, each claiming to be more sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly than the competition. But how much truth is there to these labels?
When products purport to be "greener" and more sustainable than they are in reality, it's called "greenwashing." No brand wants to be known for exploiting workers, violating human rights or destroying the environment. There are hardly any global corporations that haven't embraced so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) - a strategy incorporating ethical standards into company policy.
The truth behind a 'green' image
But even if a company has a CSR strategy and a flashy label on their products, it doesn't necessarily mean fair working conditions and environmentally friendly practices will be implemented at every stage along the production and supply chains, according to Franziska Humbert of Oxfam, which campaigns for humane working conditions worldwide.
The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh showed how poorly some companies look after the working conditions at their suppliers' factories. In April 2013, 1,135 textile workers lost their lives when their factory building caught fire and collapsed. Many parties were blamed for the disaster - the building's owner, who flouted building codes, and the international corporations seeking cheaper production without inspecting suppliers on-site. Yet many of the companies operating in Rana Plaza also tout their sustainability and social responsibility credentials on their product websites.
Humbert said shoppers shouldn't always assume there's greenwashing at play, but they should be skeptical and exercise caution when judging the veracity of information provided by a company.
Leaving consumers in the lurch
Large workplace disasters like in Rana Plaza, and the strikes and protests led by garment workers in Cambodia in January, have prompted many consumers around the world to think twice about where their products come from. But choosing products that comply with minimum ethical and environmental standards is no easy task, even for socially conscious consumers. Products still don't have to meet any mandatory minimum standards before they reach the market.
"The consumer needs to be able to have faith that ecological and ethical minimum standards have been complied with in the production process," said Christian Thorun, the founder and director of ConPolicy, a consumer policy institute that consults with lawmakers and businesses, told DW. "It's not a responsibility that individuals can take on in their everyday consumption."
Thorun said the market simply hasn't been able to implement industry-wide minimum labor standards.
Requirement for minimum standards
The core standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO) prohibit forced labor and child labor, among other things, and award workers the right to fair wages. If these guidelines were enforced and adhered to, the consumer wouldn't even have to ask whether a product was produced using child labor or made ethically. "They could rely on the fact that, for example, all t-shirts sold in Germany are produced under these minimum standards," said Thorun. "That must be the goal.
"There are already lots of internationally binding standards," he added. Today it's possible to trace a product's quality and safety history, and the standard of workers rights or environmental safeguards down the production chain. "In my opinion there's a lack of will to do that," said Thorun.
A concern for the whole company
Uwe Bergmann is the sustainability manager at the Henkel Group in Germany. The company has about 47,000 employees worldwide and an annual turnover of more than 16 billion euros ($22 billion). For Bergmann and his employer, running a responsible business means integrating different facets of social responsibility into all the departments of a company over decades.
Bergmann told DW that issues such as product safety and environmentally responsible production are just as important as "the purchase of our raw materials, how we treat our employees and how we can continue to improve their qualifications - the scope of this topic is huge."
But most quality seals that appear on the market are one-dimensional and don't acknowledge this complexity, said Bergmann.
Negotiating the jungle of potential seals
Special labels and quality seals could help customers make purchasing decisions. But often the sheer volume of these little bits of information can actually make choosing a product more confusing. For many customers, the truth behind these labels is elusive.
Is this product really the best?
Seals with claims like "100% Quality" or "best choice" don't reveal much about the products themselves. Some are awarded in-house, for example the Pro Planet label from a German supermarket. Others, like the Fair Trade or organic seals, are provided by independent organizations and are strictly controlled. In these cases consumers can be more confident certain standards have been met.
"It's not possible to achieve the perfect model for sustainable products," said Christian Thorum from ConPolicy. Internationally binding minimum standards could serve as a guide, he said, "Then there would be a benchmark, and dubious Greenwashing stories would be penalized."