Consumers are awash in green product marketing claims, and often have no way to verify the validity of claims being made. This problem is something green building practitioners face on every project. Without time and resources to verify green product claims, designers are forced to rely on the honesty and integrity of the manufacturers making the claims-sometimes with unpleasant results.

I know of one project team that lost a LEED recycled materials point due to reliance on an unsubstantiated recycled content claim made by a glazing manufacturer. When it came time to document the point, the manufacturer could not provide anything substantiating the claims that were made.

THE FTC BRINGS THE HAMMER DOWN

Bogus green product claims are sometimes easy to spot, other times not. I often wonder how these claims are allowed to continue being made without any consequence. In the United States, the FTC has established rules and guidance for green product claims that manufacturers are supposed to abide by. These guidelines can be found at www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm.

Since the guidelines were issued in 1992, an average of a mere two citations per year have been made by the FTC. This seems unbelievable in light of the thousands of deceitful environmental marketing claims that have been heaped onto the public as of late. That may change with a recent enforcement crackdown by the FTC. On June 9, 2009, the FTC cited Kmart, Tender, and Dyna-E for false green product claims. All three companies were cited for marketing products as biodegradable, but apparently are not. Kmart and Tender have agreed to settle the cases against them, but Dyna-E has elected to fight its citation in court.

The case going to litigation will be of special interest to the green building community, providing a rare opportunity to observe how enforceable the FTC guidelines really are, and what the court thinks of the guidelines.

Issuance of citations is expected to be ramped up against those making false environmental claims, according to FTC Associate Director for the Enforcement Division James Kohm. Product manufacturers take note.

The FTC plans to conduct a study of consumer understanding of green marketing claims and expects to complete analysis of the data later this year. The FTC has also conducted recent Green Guides workshops as a precursor to possible revisions made to the current FTC green marketing guidelines. Green building was one of the topics addressed in the workshops. Kohm expects a draft of the new guidelines to be available to the public no later than 2009. Seeing all this activity is encouraging, but the grind of government is slow, and manufacturers are likely to continue making false claims for months, or even years, before the FTC does anything in a wide sweeping way.

EXPOSING BOGUS GREEN MARKETING CLAIMS

One person has decided to do something about the FTC’s lack of action. Kevin Tuerff of EnviroMedia Social Marketing has established a green product claims Web site, greenwashingindex.com, to help the situation and speed the process along. The Website’s goal is threefold: 1) To help consumers become more savvy about evaluating environmental marketing claims; 2) To hold businesses accountable to their environmental marketing claims, and; 3) To stimulate demand for sustainable business practices that truly reduce the impact on the environment. The Web site contains a listing of products with questionable, unsubstantiated environmental claims. Visitors to the site are invited to register (free of charge), post greenwashing ads, and then rate them on a 5-point scale. Rating ads with the Greenwashing Index generates a score, the higher the number, the less believable the ad. Raters use the following criteria to evaluate green product claims:

The ad misleads with words.

The ad misleads with visuals and/or graphics.

The ad makes a green claim that is vague or seemingly unprovable.

The ad overstates or exaggerates how green the product/company/service actually is.

The ad leaves out or masks important information, making the green claim sound better than it is.

Ads posted on the Web site can be sorted by a number of categories including Consumer Goods, Agricultural, Energy/Utilities, and Industrial Manufacturing. By my count, there are approximately 200 ads currently posted, some related to green building materials. I found ads posted for interior latex paint, green cleansers, and blanket insulation. As the word gets out about the site, I hope to see many more green building material ads posted.

The postings are evidently unmoderated, because some of them are a little goofy. One rater, nicewhitelady of Maryland, gives Cotton Incorporated a low score of 4 for an ad that simply shows its logo superimposed over a photograph of a cotton field. She says in her commentary that “… genetically modified cotton carries its own risks, especially since, in the form of cottonseed and cottonseed oil, it can make its way into the food chain.” Hmmm. I am not sure about that, and the ad certainly doesn’t state anything about genetically engineered cotton.

Another ad features a giant green comb placed in a mess of overhead electrical lines with the message: “Tangles? Switch to Rejoice Conditioner.” Rater ss1464 gives the ad a low 1.2 score of “Authentic” with the comment. “I think this ad is really cool. It definitely shows creativity.” There is nothing in the ad that purports Rejoice Conditioner to be green. I guess by virtue of that fact, it is not a greenwashing ad and deserving of its low score.

Some ads are clearly asking for a good raking-over-the-coals. One ad by Easyjet, Europe’s “leading low cost airline,” got an average rating of 4.9 for several questionable claims made on its Web site. Among them that flying is less environmentally harmful than driving a Prius, the company is almost paperless, offers no free food on flights (which equates to no unnecessary food waste) and uses non-hazardous biodegradable de-icing products. Milieunet of the Netherlands gave the ad a 5 and said: “This is unbelievable. This is super greenwashing.” Green-Rising Marketing of Salt Lake City also gave the ad a 5 with the comment: “It is vague, it makes a [reduced CO²] comparison but does not substantiate it (an obviously outlandish claim that most would like to see backed up), and the comparison is very hard to believe.”

FRESH OR ROTTEN?

The Web site reminds me a lot of rottentomatoes.com, a site that I visit frequently. This site scores movies as either rotten or fresh. It gathers reviews of movies from critics in the media and calculates the number of positive versus negative reviews. A movie that earns 60 percent positive or greater is labeled “fresh.” Anything less is considered “rotten.” What’s nice about this Web site is that reviews of the critics are posted for reading. One can also select a pool of critics to choose from, from a preselected or custom-selected group, as the reader prefers. The number of reviews for any given movie is usually large, sometimes in the hundreds, which results in a very comprehensive and varied overview.

I think that with enough use, greenwashingindex.com could be as powerful a tool for evaluating for green product claims as Rotten Tomatoes is for movies.

Sites like greenwashingindex.com serve an important purpose in the absence of any real governmental enforcement. As sites like this emerge and consumer awareness about false claims is elevated, maybe green product manufacturers will be shamed into doing the right thing. Let’s get busy and post those ads. W&C