FTC To Issue Revised Guidelines for “Green” Product Claims

image: Wikimedia Commons

Many products these days make claims on their labels that place them somewhere on the nebulous spectrum of “green”. These endorsements range from “all natural”, to  “environmentally friendly”, “biodegradable”, or “eco”  just to name a few.

But what do these labels really mean? “Environmentally friendly” compared to what? “Biodegradable” how, and under what conditions?

The fact is, many manufacturers in recent years have taken note of strong consumer appetite for safer products and have responded– but not always with meaningful changes. Products and services that gratuitously toss around vague environmental claims have come to be known as “greenwashing“.

For example, many product labels feature environmental seals – little pictoral “stamps” with a tagline; while there are some legitimate third party verification seals that attest to a products’ safety, environmental performance and/or the manufacturing process, some may be nothing more than ornament. Other examples of deceptive advertising practices may include misleading claims, or overstatement of environmental benefits of a product during its manufacture, use or disposal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) first  adopted its “Green Guide” in 1998 to help provide a baseline of clarity for both consumers and the manufacturers making environmental claims about their products; the revisions that are in the works now will be the first since 1998.

The new revisions will be based on research done by the FTC to gauge consumer understanding of various “green” labeling terms and practices. However, the FTC stops short of providing legal definitions to terms and the guidelines will still be voluntary and self-implemented by manufacturers.

Listen to the KQED Forum “An End to Greenwashing” that provides a discussion of the new FTC guidelines, here

Visit the Good Guide, a group that helps you find “healthy, green, ethical products according to scientific ratings”

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Assorted Links

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed changes to Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (Green Guides) that would make greenwashing more difficult.

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Starbucks has set a goal of making 100% of its cups reusable or recyclable by 2015.

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The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has upgraded its green building standards, requiring LEED Gold certification for all new federal construction and major renovations.

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The editorial page of The Sacramento Bee ran a head-to-head editorial last week discussing whether the proposed high-speed rail project in California is a valuable addition to infrastructure or a boondoggle.

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Assorted Links

Greentech Media discusses the ongoing infighting between the solar and energy efficiency sectors.

The coal industry costs more money than it creates in West Virginia.

Earth2Tech says we should all be watching the Texas smart meter market, not California.

Is Wal-Mart going green or greenwashing?

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You can read our post on Greenwashing here.

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This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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The term greenwashing is generally heard when one person or organizations accuses another of greenwashing a product or practice.

Greenwashing is when a company disingenuously promotes a product as “green” or as an more environmentally-friendly option.

The Wikipedia entry on greenwashing gives the following origin story for the term:

“Greenwashing was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay reagrdign the hotel industry’s practice of placing green placards in each room, promoting the reuse of guest towels, ostensibly to ‘save the environment’. Westerveld noted that, in most cases, little or no effort toward waste recycling was being implemented by these institutions…Westerveld opined that the actual objective of this ‘green campaign’ on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, increased profit.”

Generally, a product, practice, or promotion is labeled as “greenwashing” when it seems that there has been significant effort or resources devoted to labeling something green, and much less effort devoted to looking at the underlying metrics in terms of environmental impact and actually improving environmental performance.

As an example, yesterday I passed a sign outside the local Walgreens advocating that I “save a tree by signing up for online promotions”. Another example is that many aerosol product labels still say “CFC-free” even though CFCs have been banned since before I was born.

Several years ago, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing put out a list of “Six Sins of Greenwashing”, which has now been expanded to seven.

The seven sins of greenwashing are:

1 – Sin of the hidden trade-off

2 – Sin of no proof

3 – Sin of vagueness

4 – Sin of worshipping false labels

5 – Sin of irrelevance

6 – Sin of lesser of two evils

7 – Sin of fibbing

TerraChoice has a comprehensive (and fun!) site covering the sins. The site also includes links to recent TerraChoice reports on greenwashing.

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From my latest visit to the store (one of the MANY examples of greenwashing on the shelf):

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.