Greenwashing: The Eco-Frenemy

Author: Danielle Salley

Truth be told, today’s marketing schemes are typically worded to benefit the company in question, and rarely to benefit the environment. Then why do their products pretend to be something they’re not? We all know the answer: to sell! It is not surprising that companies are attempting to push the green buttons to distinguish their products over others, particularly since ‘going green’ is the new trend.

Consumers are more willing to buy a product with a green label on the front, even without substantiated green evidence, because it’s easier on all of our consciences. Take a household product for example: a cleaning detergent that says ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘ecosmart’ would likely be purchased over another standard detergent. So how can we determine if we are being ‘greenwashed’?

For starters, the National Advertising Division (NAD), part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, is a self-governing entity that has established guidelines to help discern which environmental claims are true of false. NAD reviews the “truthfulness and accuracy in marketing claims”, which has become increasingly difficult to monitor with the rise of the Information Age.

Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “has developed guidelines for advertisers to ensure that their environmental marketing claims do not mislead consumers.” The FTC provides tips to aid consumers to analyze products’ green claims. For one, ensure claims “give some substance to the claim”—as in WHY it is ‘environmentally safe’.

Here are just a few green advertising assessments according to the FTC:

  1. A product label contains an environmental seal, either in the form of a globe icon, or a globe icon with only the text “Earth Smart” around it. Either label is likely to convey to consumers that the product is environmentally superior to other products. If the manufacturer cannot substantiate this broad claim, the claim would be deceptive.
  2. A soap or shampoo product is advertised as “biodegradable,” with no qualification or other disclosure. The manufacturer has competent and reliable scientific evidence demonstrating that the product, which is customarily disposed of in sewage systems, will break down and decompose into elements found in nature in a short period of time. The claim is not deceptive.
  3. A package is labeled, “50% more recycled content than before.” The manufacturer increased the recycled content of its package from 2 percent recycled material to 3 percent recycled material. Although the claim is technically true, it is likely to convey the false impression that the advertiser has increased significantly the use of recycled material.
  4. A trash bag is labeled “recyclable” without qualification. Because trash bags will ordinarily not be separated out from other trash at the landfill or incinerator for recycling, they are highly unlikely to be used again for any purpose. Even if the bag is technically capable of being recycled, the claim is deceptive since it asserts an environmental benefit where no significant or meaningful benefit exists.
  5. A paper grocery sack is labeled “reusable.” The sack can be brought back to the store and reused for carrying groceries but will fall apart after two or three reuses, on average. Because reasonable consumers are unlikely to assume that a paper grocery sack is durable, the unqualified claim does not overstate the environmental benefit conveyed to consumers. The claim is not deceptive and does not need to be qualified to indicate the limited reuse of the sack.

These are only a few examples of deceptive advertising language used to attract consumers to certain products. Next time, use your environmental awareness and ‘do-good’ attitude in a more critical light when at the store. Don’t be fooled by green colored labels and logos, make sure these claims are relevant!

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