Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's the Silly Season for Garden Pesticide Advertising

 It's spring and the "Silly Season" for garden product advertising is in full swing. And gardeners want products that are safer to use for everyone concerned: their families, pets, plants and beneficial insects. Advertising has drilled that into their heads. Unfortunately, many are pushing products that have been around awhile; they're just dressed up with new names, prettier labels and buzz words that mean little. "Natural", "safe to use" and "earth-friendly" are three popular, but useless label stickers currently in vogue. We tackled a few of these products in an earlier blog entry this year.
Don't pay too much attention to the advertising. Read the entire product label before purchasing. And then follow those label directions. And don't believe the big print or the name of the product on a garden pesticide. It's the small print, the "Environmental Hazards" and "Precautionary Statements" that are required reading.
Whenever I see a product with a misleading name or label, I harken back to this little snippet from "Shirt", by The Bonzo Dog Band :

This misleading home and garden advertising is referred to as "Greenwashing", the practice of companies disingenuously spinning products and policies as environmentally friendly.
In April 2008  sustainability communications firm Futerra launched The Greenwash Guide. This guide states that Greenwash is an environmental claim which is unsubstantiated (a fib) or irrelevant (a distraction). Found in all forms of marketing and corporate communications, from packaging, PR and advertising claims to CEO speeches and made about people, organisations and products. Greenwash is an old concept, wrapped in a very modern incarnation.

Here are 10 Warning Signs of Greenwashing you might find on a garden product or its advertising:
1. Fluffy language
Words or terms with no clear meaning, e.g. ‘eco-friendly’.
2. Green products vs. dirty company
Such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory which pollutes rivers.
3. Suggestive pictures
Green images that indicate a (un-justified) green impact e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes.
4. Irrelevant claims
Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
5. Best in class?
Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.
6. Just not credible
‘Eco friendly’ cigarettes anyone? ‘Greening’ a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
7. Gobbledygook
Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand.
8. Imaginary friends
A ‘label’ that looks like third party endorsement …except it’s made up.
9. No proof
It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
10. Out-right lying
Totally fabricated claims or data.

Greenwashing took an interesting turn a couple of weeks ago locally here in Sacramento, when a newspaper ad by a local nursery took this to a new level. The prominent display in the ad was this.

So, what were the "environmentally gentle" products in the ad?

 All three of the products displayed prominently at the top of the ad would certainly qualify as more environmentally friendly than many of their counterparts, but with reservations (Read the complete label to make sure it is right for you. There may be less toxic alternatives). 

But what about the other products featured in the ad, specifically those with that leaf next to their names? A reader might assume that the leaf refers to a product that is "gentle on our environment and the wildlife that inhabits it." Shame on you for assuming!

Sacramento-area  organic gardening consultant, Steve Zien of Living Resources Company, took exception to some of those leaf-highlighted products:
"Preen Garden Weed Preventer, Sevin Concentrated Bug Killer and Corry’s Slug and Snail Death were included in this classification," says Zien. Let's discuss each product individually and see if we agree with the claim that these are environmentally soft products.

Preen’s pesticide label states, 'This pesticide is extremely toxic to freshwater marine, and estuarine fish and aquatic invertebrates. Causes moderate eye irritation. Harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through skin. Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing.' Trifluralin is the active ingredient (killing agent) in Preen. The US Environmental Protection Agency states, 'No information is available on the acute (short-term), chronic (long-term), reproductive, developmental, or carcinogenic effects of trifluralin in humans.'  The EPA also has classified this pesticide as a possible human carcinogen (cancer causing agent). With that in mind I feel I can safely say Preen is by no means gentle on the environment or those that dwell in it."

"Sevin is even worse, says Zien. "The label states, 'This product is extremely toxic to aquatic and estuarine invertebrates. BEE CAUTION: MAY KILL HONEYBEE IN SUBSTANTIAL NUMBERS.' The US EPA classifies Seven (active ingredient, carbaryl) as “Likely to be carcinogenic in humans.” Extoxnet, (a service of universities) states, 'Carbaryl is moderately to very toxic. It can produce adverse effects in humans by skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion.'"

"Regarding 'Corry’s Slug and Snail Death', the active ingredient is metaldehyde (shortened to 'Meta' in radio and television advertising). The product label states, 'This pesticide may be fatal to dogs or other pets if eaten.' In California it is one of the most common poisoning agents in dogs. Does this sound like a 'green' pest control product to you? It certainly doesn’t to me."
"It is understandable when a big box store provides misleading green washing information because the folks in the advertising department don’t know any better," says Zien. "But one would expect higher standards from a local nursery that is trying to serve our community. Personally, I want to buy my horticultural supplies from manufacturers and local nurseries that do not practice green washing. When choosing a product or where to make my purchase I will choose companies that are making a concerted effort to offer and promote organic horticultural products."

Bottom line for gardeners: Read and follow all label directions. And think about alternatives before applying any pesticides. A good site for that information is the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management Program, which offers cultural, mechanical and physical controls as well as chemical controls for plant problems.


  1. Do you mean the Clark "We need you" route supervisor was lying to me when he told me all their products were 'eco-friendly" and safe for my pets as he tried to talk me into trying his service? I told him they couldn't be as eco-friendly as the broom, Webster, and water hose I use for pesticide control now. He also didn't seem to like it when I told him that I and 95% of the spiders had a deal, stay off the porch and out of the buildings and I won't squish them.

  2. The two things that matter to me the most are: does it work AND -- what kind of an effect is it going to have on the environment.

    I've always been a fan of Roundup -- but not when I'm going to kill off a generation of ladybugs or honeybees. This is one reason why Venus and I are PULLING weeds everyday rather than spray.

    Pulling is more time intensive and you don't get it all done at once -- but it sure is better for the yard.

  3. I try to use natural ways of getting rid of garden pests, but inside my home I don't want anymore pests than what may have already gotten in. I started using organic pest control recently for the pests I find in my home. I love how it still gets the job done with out all of the harsh chemicals being put in my home.

  4. To reduce lawn I put a lot of rock hardscaping around my property. I had thick black plastic beneath the stones, but the winds blow sand and dirt in from neighboring rural properties, giving a fine growing medium for all kinds of noxious weeds. I hand-pull them, but want to find a less energy and time-intensive way of dealing with them. Vinegar solutions kill the weeds above ground, but they sprout right back. Looks like Preen is out of the question. Any other ideas>