Dead Sea Works.
Dead Sea Works. Came under fire for an ad campaign that activists say was misleading. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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The Environmental Protection Ministry started an advertising campaign last week designed to encourage people to buy environmentally friendly apartments, and to explain how to tell if an apartment really meets the standards of this sought-after label. The ministry noted that recently there have been many cases of apartments being falsely marketed as eco-friendly, and the purpose of the ad campaign is to prevent the public from being misled.

The tendency of contractors and marketing companies to label products and services "green" is steadily growing in Israel and abroad - a sign that environmental awareness has arrived in the world of commerce. But in many cases, businesses are engaging in what has come to be called "greenwashing," making false claims of being green with no real environmental basis. Such false representations help the commercial sector continue to damage the environment and, at the same time, present itself as protecting nature while taking money from the environmentally conscious public. Greenwashing creates confusion for consumers who now don't know whether the apartment they've bought is energy-efficient or whether the packaging of the product they've just bought is biodegradable as it says on the box.

Confronting the phenomenon of greenwashing got a slow and hesitant start and was in the main carried out by nongovernmental organizations, but the ministry's campaign indicates that the battle is now also being fought on a governmental level. The campaign is clear and simple, explaining that a green home is one that meets new, green construction standards. It is not enough for an apartment to be built in the middle of a rolling, green park if it does not have the appropriate insulation, is not set up with water-saving devices and waste-recycling facilities, and if recycled materials were not used in the construction. Paints and glues that emit organic poisons should also not have been used.

It is believed the application of the new standards in Israel could reduce electricity use by 30 percent and cut water use by one-tenth.

One may hope the Environmental Protection Ministry will closely and critically follow green pretensions elsewhere - including those professed by local government. For example, the city of Hod Hasharon takes great pride in "being green" thanks to its paved bike paths, but it recently approved construction of an enormous mall that will likely be less accessible to pedestrians and cyclists and will rely on customers arriving in private cars.

Misleading, but not lying

It is important to note that some commercial establishments are already taking the first important steps toward becoming more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Termokir Industries Ltd., a manufacturer of wall-insulation materials, for example, uses a life-cycle analysis - in which a company examines the environmental effects of a particular product, from the raw-materials stage to the point at which it leave the factory. Termokir started using the process in an attempt to cut back its greenhouse emissions and the amount of waste it produces. The life-cycle analysis has become an essential tool for every business trying to understand its environmental impact, especially when it comes to importing raw materials from different continents.

Some countries have instituted a more thorough approach to confronting greenwashing. About a year ago, the United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a guidebook called "Green Claims Guidance," designed to help organizations, companies and public bodies determine whether their products or services can be accurately labeled as environmentally friendly. According to the guide, an organization must understand the environmental impact of its product or service, and whether it adds some environmental value beyond that already required by law. According to the guidebook, green boasts must be precise and true, and must use data and images that are not misleading.

In Europe - and soon in Israel - the Green Dot symbol appears on certain products as evidence that the packaging complies with the European Packaging Waste Directive, in a bid increase the use of recyclable materials.

There are many ways to mislead consumers without lying to them - for example, a company claiming to have increased the amount of recycled material in a product by 50 percent without revealing that the amount of recycled material used was only 10 percent to start with. Another example is a car company increasing its vehicles' energy efficiency by five percent and rushing to declare the cars environmentally friendly.

A better-known example is that of British Petroleum, which has been slammed by green activists for boasting about using clean energy while it continues to produce oil and was responsible for environmental damage caused by an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

In Israel, environmental campaigners criticized Dead Sea Works, which came out with an advertising campaign a year ago that claimed the company "gives life to the Dead Sea." In it, the company claimed that, by diverting water from the northern basin to the dried-up southern basin, in order to operate industrial mineral-extraction pools, it had restored life to the region and enabled the construction of a tourist area. Activists criticized Dead Sea Works for not pointing out that this diversion of water, carried out for commercial purposes, is one of the reasons for the ongoing drop in the Dead Sea's water level.