Hypothetically, you walk into a store and there are four of
the same type of product. One is 100% natural, one is 100% sustainably
sourced, one 100% biodegradable, and one 100% chemical free. What is the best
product to buy? Does it matter? Are some labels better than others?
—Angela, in Ventura, California
You’re opening a big can of ugly green worms here, because so
many products have such a complicated history, and green marketing claims have
multiplied with blinding speed. All those 100% claims are darn squirrely,
because they can be 100% of very little or nothing, and whether they’re 100%
natural, sustainably sourced, biodegradable, or chemical-free depends on
how you define the terms. "Biodegradable" is probably the most useless and irrelevant description, for the simple reason that not all things biodegrade equally in different settings, plus biodegradable plastics can contaminate other recycled plastics, rendering them useless. On top of this, biodegrading is not necessarily a good thing, because it can release carbon dioxide and methane.
The number of products falsely trumpeting their environmental
virtue grew almost 75 percent, from 2,739 to 4,744 from 2009 to 2010 alone,
according to the venerable Underwriters Laboratories. The scope of deception
was so stupendous that UL resorted to theological language to characterize it,
by defining the “ Seven Sins of Greenwashing ,” and proceeding to note that only
4.5 percent of the “green” products were “sin-free.” I suppose the good news is
that this was an improvement from the previous survey, when UL found a mere 2
percent blameless. So your can of worms might even be half full instead of half
empty, since business is waking up to the concerns of environmentalists.
But the problem of “greenwashing” remains huge and confusing.
T he Federal Trade Commission has released a summary of new guidelines to help
sort out legitimate claims from greenwash. If you really want to geek out, you can
view the entire 36-page set of guidelines . The FTC’s basic rule is that “Marketers should not make broad, unqualified
general environmental benefit claims like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly,’ ” when
they present no specific evidence to back up the claim. When they say
“free-of,” for example, it’s considered deceptive marketing if the product
never had the substance in the first place, e.g., when a potato chip package
blurts out “cholesterol-free.” I find it amazing that while the FTC lists numerous
examples of bogus claims, it is silent on the use of the aforementioned term “natural.”
If you think a product is violating
the guidelines, you can file a complaint with the FTC .
Your tax dollars at work. If enough of us squawk, we may even begin to gain more clarity on this mind-bogglingly
baffling issue. —Bob Schildgen