Does the eco-image of a company sway you towards their products over others? You may think you’re spending your “green dollars” responsibly, but a story from New Scientist says that might not be the case.

New Scientist teamed up with Earthsense and Trucost to find out if consumers’ environmental perceptions of various companies lined up with reality. In many cases it did not.

Earthsense has polled U.S. consumers on the perceived “greenness” of many companies, and Trucost has compiled a quantitative assessment of companies’ global environmental impact. A fusion of these two sets of information reveals just how confused the average consumer is about companies’ green credentials.

The New Scientist article says, “Overall, there was no correlation between the Earthsense and Trucost scores, suggesting that U.S. consumers have little idea about companies' environmental performance relative to each other. And looking within industrial sectors, the only hint of accurate consumer awareness came for technology companies.”

In some scenarios there were drastic differences between perception and reality. Discovery Communications — whose lineup includes Animal Planet and — are overwhelmingly given serious green credibility. But according to the data, their environmental impact per dollar is almost identical to Viacom.

The food and beverage industry is where consumers are most confused about the eco-friendly facts. New Scientist analyzed 115 firms and found that producers of food and drink have the highest environmental impact.

Out of 22 food and beverage companies in the Earthsense survey, consumers picked Coca-Cola as the 16th in terms of environmental impact. Their actual rank is second, bested by Green Mountain Coffee (a company that consumers perceived to be at the top spot).

Whole Foods Market is a purveyor of “natural and organic produce” and is generally thought of as the most environmentally responsible place to shop. Sure, they’ve taken some great steps towards sustainability, but Trucost’s modeling rates them no better than other conventional supermarkets.

In Whole Foods’ case (and other companies’ as well), the data may not be an accurate representation of their environmental commitment. The company doesn’t disclose all its key environmental data, which forces Trucost to model its impact from an analysis of its overall operations.

Amy Hebard, co-founder of Earthsense, suspects that companies like Whole Foods Market aren’t disclosing all of their environmental data for fear of being seen as “greenwashing”. Greenwashing is a term used to label a company that wants to be seen as environmentally responsible without actually taking the steps to do so.

Efforts to encourage companies to release their environmental impact data are gaining momentum, but consumers may have to remain in the dark until that reporting is actually required.

Check out New Scientist’s interactive chart to see the results of the consumer polling vs. actual data. 

Bait and switch? Companies with eco-credibility may not be so green after all
New data shows that some 'environmentally responsible' companies actually have consumers snowed, but some remain legit.