Technology

How the Web Can Help You Fight Greenwashing


Dubious marketing claims about environmental benefits are rankling many consumers. Two sites aim to give you the straight dope

There's been a wave of green goods crashing over our heads in recent months. But how confident are you really that the eco-friendly toothpaste (shampoo, notebook, chair, etc.) you bought was green enough to justify that much more of your hard-earned wages? Turns out the green marketing noise level has gotten so high, it's ticking people off. Earlier this year, for example, Britain's Advertising Standards Agency noted that in 2007 it received more than four times as many complaints about ads touting green claims than it did in 2006.

So where can one find some green peace of mind? The Web, of course. A growing number of Web sites have started to emerge to help consumers sort through the (green) BS. Last week alone, both GoodGuide, an academic research-based site that rates how "good" products are based on 140 different criteria, and Green Wikia, a green section of the crowd-sourcing site Wikia, launched with the goal of shining a light on green goods.

The two sites take vastly different approaches. GoodGuide is the product of a decade's worth of investigation by professor Dara O'Rourke, first at MIT and then at UC Berkeley, into supply chains and the building blocks of consumer goods. The site, which O'Rourke says was inspired by a desire to know what, exactly, was in the suntan lotion he had been rubbing on his daughter's face, is meant to be an authoritative "top-down" approach to aiding in purchase decisions. It taps 200-plus private and public sources of information, among them government databases, nonprofits, third-party research firms, and the media. All that info culminates into one decisive rating that tells consumers where the product ranks, on a scale that ranges from bad to excellent, vs. its competitors.

Green Wikia, on the other hand, is all about letting the masses decide what the best green products and services are. Jimmy Wales, who co-founded both Wikia and Wikipedia, said he launched the green section of Wikia because he noticed a profound lack of quality information on green issues. And unlike the info on the green-focused pages of Wikipedia, Wales said he wants Green Wikia to offer more lifestyle tips, product options, and how-to's. Of course, relying on the wisdom of the crowd is nothing new, and a study in the journal Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica.

So when it comes to rating green goods and services, is one method superior to the other? They both have their advantages. The green characteristics of products—reduced carbon footprint, long-term health benefits, lack of animal testing, etc.—do go largely unseen by the consumer. And there's only so much that the average buyer of a green product can really add to a discussion on green goods, outside of a personal review. So GoodGuide will be able to inspire a lot more trust in the short term, especially as Green Wikia, which at this point is made up primarily of links to media reports and company Web sites, gets built out.

On the other hand, over time, Green Wikia will have access to an unlimited amount of information—everything on the Web, with input from anyone who cares to weigh in—which could theoretically lead to millions of contributors. GoodGuide, meanwhile, has 12 full-time and 12 part-time employees amassing information and rankings. Who would create better, more accurate, or more useful information, a group amassing select info from specific sources or millions with access to everything? At this point, we don't know; the issue of how to mix user-generated content with professional content remains a central debate of Internet publishing. But we do know that with the level of green marketing growing by leaps and bounds, we're going to need some smart green filters fast, from both the top down and the bottom up.

Provided by GigaOm

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