Are the oil refineries in Haifa legitimately defining themselves as green, even though they pollute? Do communities whose construction on open ground did damage to the environment deserving of the adjective "ecological?" Is the Dan Region Association of Towns, Sanitation and Waste Disposal rightfully entitled to the Green Globe it has won? And what criteria should be used to answer these questions?

Such questions have been engaging consumer and environmental organizations, who are suspicious of the flourishing phenomenon of "greenwash" in which companies use evasive and imprecise information to sell themselves to consumers interested in environmental principles.

Abroad they are looking for guidelines. The British advertising company Futura, which is committed to ecological principles, has published a comprehensive and seemingly essential guide to greenwash. Consider this. An American marketing company recently examined 1,000 products considered ecological in one way or another and every single one, with one exception, had no basis for the claim or were deceptive.

About a year ago, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published a standard for ecological media statements, with recommendations about how to publish reliable environmental data. Several countries have rules for ecological advertising, which are supposed to sidestep deception.

Losing confidence

The Futura guide defines greenwash as an environmental claim about an individual, organization or a product that is unsubstantiated (a fib) or irrelevant (a distraction). The phenomenon is not only annoying, but also pernicious, stresses the guide, as it puts the whole market for green products at risk and might damage the virtuous circle of companies whose customers choose their products over non-green products. "Greenwash is the spanner in the works that sabotages the whole environmental movement within business," says the guide.

There are many ways to deceive the public, warns the Futura guide, such as vague and general advertising that the company is friendly to the environment, with no data to back the claim. Some companies play up a green product and style themselves as "ecological," but fail to mention their other products that pollute.

Is the fuel really clean?

The current ad campaign of the Oil Refineries Ltd. (ORL) in Haifa is "Energy of Change" with the refineries declaring they are green and marketing a green fuel. This campaign includes precise information about ecological improvement from selling the less polluting Euro5 gasoline. The advertising depicts the less polluting gasoline as "clean" so the refineries seem clean, but refining petroleum means exploiting a non-renewable natural resource in a way that causes pollution.

"When we defined Euro5 as clean, we meant that it contains a significant improvement and a real reduction in the emission of pollution," says Yashar Ben Mordechai, the CEO of ORL.

Another example involving fuels is the installation that operated at Glilot Junction. Gas stored there constituted a safety and environmental hazard. This facility underwent greenwashing and was "dyed green" to improve its image.

The consumers' ombudsman in Norway has taken a stand on green terminology, instructing that vehicles of a given model must not be defined as friendly to the environment unless it is proven that at every stage - from the raw materials to the junking of the car - less pressure is exerted on the environment than is exerted by any other vehicle.

Defining a built-up community as "ecological" is often problematic. Klil in the Galilee is a community whose inhabitants make a point of pursuing an ecological way of life (using solar energy and recycling) but Klil was built on a large, open area, causing damage to the environment.

Sometimes greenwashing even taints green organizations. Tomorrow Israel's umbrella green organization, Life and Environment, will bestow its annual merit award, the Green Globe, on the Dan Region Association of Towns, Sanitation and Waste Disposal in appreciation of its commitment to turn the waste that flows into the sea into agricultural fertilizer. The Dan Region body has been advertising this, referring to itself as "an ecological pioneer."

Meanwhile, environmental activists are furious at the choice of prize recipient. In a letter to Life and Environment, an activist protested: "One meaningless statement, with no proof of any action, with a well-oiled marketing mechanism, and it is already receiving a kashrut seal from the organization that is suppose to be representing me."

Alan Karo, the CEO of Life and Environment replied to the letter, saying the Green Globe is being awarded to the association in recognition of its decision to turn in a new and environmentally important direction, and it should be encouraged in this.

The green seal

Advertising a product as green must, according to the Futura guide, be based on professional planning and knowledge. Standards institutes abroad and in Israel award a green seal to products meeting their criteria. Moreover, many companies now hire experts to help them create real environmental change.

Liad Ortar, formerly an activist in Zalul (Environmental Association of Israel) has established just such a company, Arkada. "I stick to the existing methodology abroad concerning the activity of companies. This is based, above all, on investigation and identification of the company's environmental effects, the implementation of a policy that deals with these effects and only afterward the media reportage on the results," he explains.

Recently Ortar advised Coca-Cola on the establishment of a music village on Achziv Beach during the summer vacation, including coordination with the Israel Nature Protection and Parks Authority to ensure waste will be taken care of, and that the sea turtles will not be disturbed by the noise and the lighting.

Still, calling a commercially motivated youth recreation spot a project to benefit the environment is problematic. Especially grating is the fact that this beach has, in effect. become a kind of private preserve of Club Med, and entry is permitted only to people who attend events, something that runs counter to the greens' struggle for free access to the country's beaches. "This we haven't managed to change," Ortar admits. "This is something that already existed at the beach before we got there."