Putting a Stop to Greenwash?

Like it or not, we are awash in greenwash.

A casual stroll down any American supermarket aisle should suffice to convince anyone who has, thus far, (somehow?) managed to remain blissfully ignorant of sustainability’s corporate takeover. There are “eco-friendly” versions of nearly every product imaginable, from organic pop-tarts to environmentally-friendly toilet cleaners to all-natural scented fabric softeners. Consumer overload, and a resulting green-induced-confusion, is inevitable.

Although it’s easy to resort to cynicism, complaining that nothing is being done to hold back the deluge of corporate greenwash, the Federal Trade Commission is working to establish regulatory guidelines to curb the proliferation of deceiving environmental marketing claims. Are there problems with the FTC’s efforts? Sure…they are incomplete, insufficient, and merely guidelines for voluntary compliance (as opposed to laws). But, they are a starting point, and they better than nothing.

A Summary of the FTC’s “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims”

*An Environmental Marketing Claim should make clear whether the attribute or benefit in question refers to “the product, the product’s packaging, a service, or to a portion of component of the product, package or service.” For example, a box of aluminum foil labeled as “recyclable,” with no further explanation, is deceptive because the claim does not make clear whether it refers to the box or the foil.

*An Environmental Marketing Claim should not “be presented in a manner that overstates the environmental attribute or benefit, expressly or by implication.” For example, a package labeled “50% more recycled content than before” would be deceptive (even if it were technically accurate) if the recycled content was negligible (such as in the case of a 2% to 3% increase). Here, the use of an amount like 50% is deemed likely to convey the false impression that a significant portion of the product’s material is recycled.

*An Environmental Marketing Claim that contains a “comparative statement should be presented in a manner that makes the basis for the comparison sufficiently clear…the advertiser should be able to substantiate the comparison.” For example, a shampoo bottle labels as containing “20% more recycled content” is deceptive because the item to which it is being compared is unclear (20% more than a previous bottle? Than a competitor’s bottle? Than a bottle with 20% less recycled content?)

The FTC also offers numerous examples of environmental marketing claims that are deemed to be deceptive and of others deemed legitimate to serve as guidelines. And they are looking into adopting additional guides for more specific claims referring to the use of renewable materials and/or energy, and carbon neutrality and/or offsets.

Now, if only we could figure out a way to enforce their recommendations…