Green-washing = Profit?

Green-washing = Profit?

We all want to help save the environment.

Why are we so concerned?

Within the past decade or so people of all walks of life have become more and more conscious of detrimental environmental changes taking place. Politicians, Actors, Prominent Business Owners, Corporate Heads, Scientists and Educators all alike have jumped on the bandwagon to “save the earth”.  Are we really so arrogant to think that we can make a difference, or is there a much more prevalent reason for our concern…Profit.

The world-wide market today offers immeasurable profit potential to all those who seek to enrich themselves by advertising fear.

Without question, human habitation of our planet has had some impact. Global Warming, the hole in the ozone layer, extinction of animals and plants, etc. are all sources of human concern and incredibly profitable venues to explore and exploit. “Green-washing” is just another example of how savvy marketers profit from the inevitable forces of nature that have shaped our planet for 4.5 billion years and will continue to influence it long beyond human extinction. The world-wide market today offers immeasurable profit potential to all those who seek to enrich themselves by advertising fear.  Induce fear and then sell your product that promises a saving solution.

I do not purport to have any answers to these problems but I strongly suggest that you question the “carrots of information” that you are being fed to decide if you really are making a difference by buying a “green” product  or if you are just being duped to spend.

Green-washing – Don’t believe the hype?

Typically products sold under the auspice of being  “Green”, “Eco-Friendly”, “Natural” , “Biodegradable” , “Degradable”, “Compostable” or listing “Certifications or Seals of Approval” are often an attempt to gain market share and greater profit for their products.

whiting_chemicals“Green-washing” is when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising “being  green” rather  than spending resources on environmentally sound practices. It’s a marketing bonanza. Promoters have garnered this opportunity to profit in a big way. Often its as simple as changing the name or label of a product to evoke “nature” or “natural” to entice an environmentally conscious consumer to purchase. An example of this is putting an image of a forest on a bottle containing harmful chemicals.The recent explosion of web-based Green business certifications demonstrate a more sophisticated form of “Green-washing” has become prevalent.  Many marketers have resorted to creating sham certifications. Merely filling out an online self assessment form may qualify a company for a “Green Certification” or “Green Certificates”.  These sham certifications are offered to the public for their use in print or on web sites, usually at a price” or “monthly fee” as if they were earned. Marketers have developed sophisticated graphic emblems and in many cases will sport credible association references in order to claim validity to their product. Typically products sold under the auspice of being  “Green”, “Eco-Friendly”, “Natural” , “Biodegradable” , “Degradable”, “Compostable” or listing “Certifications or Seals of Approval” are often an attempt to gain market share and greater profit for their products. For instance the use of logos such as ‘Rainforest Alliance’ is a form of “Green-washing”, where customers are made to believe that the item they’re buying is completely ethical, when in fact only a small proportion of the item’s ingredients are.

Enforcement is a Joke

The problem is that consumers are once again left guessing about the legitimacy of an offered product. Our governmental authorities are well aware of this and have instituted guidelines to reduce the amount of graft. But these are just guidelines. Even though these guidelines can be used to prosecute false and misleading advertisements it is unlikely that any but a very few will ever be prosecuted because the FTC clearly states that the green guidelines were not created to be used as an enforceable guideline but instead were intended to be followed voluntarily.

Listed below are the original green guidelines set by the FTC.

  • Qualifications and disclosures: The Commission traditionally has held that in order to be effective, any qualifications or disclosures such as those described in these guides should be sufficiently clear, prominent and understandable to prevent deception. Clarity of language, relative type size and proximity to the claim being qualified, and an absence of contrary claims that could undercut effectiveness, will maximize the likelihood that the qualifications and disclosures are appropriately clear and prominent.
  • Distinction between benefits of product, package and service: An environmental marketing claim should be presented in a way that makes clear whether the environmental attribute or benefit being asserted refers to the product, the product’s packaging, a service or to a portion or component of the product, package or service. In general, if the environmental attribute or benefit applies to all but minor, incidental components of a product or package, the claim need not be qualified to identify that fact. There may be exceptions to this general principle. For example, if an unqualified “recyclable” claim is made and the presence of the incidental component significantly limits the ability to recycle the product, then the claim would be deceptive.
  • Overstatement of environmental attribute: An environmental marketing claim should not be presented in a manner that overstates the environmental attribute or benefit, expressly or by implication. Marketers should avoid implications of significant environmental benefits if the benefit is in fact negligible.
  • Comparative claims: Environmental marketing claims that include a comparative statement should be presented in a manner that makes the basis for the comparison sufficiently clear to avoid consumer deception. In addition, the advertiser should be able to substantiate the comparison. The FTC has promised to update its guidelines and in fact as of today has updated its guidelines for environmental marketing claims in an attempt to reduce “Green-washing”.

Change in the Air? Not Really

Listed below are the proposed revised guidelines as of October 2010

General Environmental Benefit (e.g., “green,” “eco-friendly”)

Marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims. They are difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate. (The current Guides state that marketers can make unqualified claims if they can substantiate all express and implied claims. Otherwise, they should qualify the claim.)

Qualifications should be clear and prominent, and should limit the claim to a specific benefit. Marketers should ensure the advertisement’s context does not imply deceptive environmental claims. (In the current Guides, this guidance appears only in examples.)

Certifications and Seals of Approval

This new section emphasizes that certifications/seals are endorsements covered by the Commission’s Endorsement Guides and provides new examples illustrating how those Guides apply to environmental claims (e.g., marketers should disclose material connections to the certifier). The current Guides address certifications/seals in only one example in the general environmental benefit section. 16 CFR 260.7, Example 5) Because an unqualified certification/seal (one that does not state the basis for certification) likely conveys a general environmental benefit claim, marketers should use clear and prominent language limiting the claim to particular attribute(s) for which they have substantiation. (This provision highlights guidance already provided in current Guides’ Example 5.) Third-party certification does not eliminate a marketer’s obligation to have substantiation for all conveyed claims.


For solid waste products other than those destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities, the proposal clarifies that the “reasonably short period of time” for complete decomposition is no more than one year after customary disposal.(The current Guides state that a marketer should qualify a degradable claim unless it can substantiate that the “entire product or package will completely breakdown and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.”)

Marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities because decomposition will not occur within one year.


The proposal clarifies that the time period referenced in the current Guides for an unqualified compostable claim (“All materials in product/package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost . . . in a safe and timely manner . . .”) means that a product or package will break down in approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted.


The proposal contains minor updates to examples to reflect changes in regulations concerning ozone-depleting chemicals.


The proposal highlights the three-tiered analysis for disclosing the limited availability of recycling programs. (This guidance currently appears in examples only.) 

1. “Substantial majority” of consumers/communities have access to recycling facilities — Marketer can make an unqualified recyclable claim.

2. “Significant percentage” of consumers/communities have access to recycling facilities — Marketer should qualify recyclable claim (e.g., package may not be recyclable in your area).

3. Less than a “significant percentage” of consumers/communities have access to recycling facilities — Marketer should qualify recyclable claim (e.g., product is recyclable only in the few communities that have recycling programs).


Free-of: This new section expands the current guidance, advising that even if true, claims that an item is free-of a substance may be deceptive if:

1.  The item has substances that pose the same or similar environmental risk as the substance not present (currently covered in an example);

2.  The substance has never been associated with the product category (new guidance). Also, under certain circumstances, free-of claims may be appropriate even where an item contains a de minimis amount of a substance (new guidance). Free-of claims may convey additional environmental claims, including general benefit or comparative superiority claims (new guidance).

Non-toxic: Such claims likely convey that an item is non-toxic both for humans and for the environment generally. (This guidance was in an example in the general environmental benefit section.)

Proposed Guidance for Claims Not Currently Addressed by the Guides

Made with Renewable Materials

Marketers should qualify claims with specific information about the renewable material (what it is; how it is sourced; why it is renewable).

Additionally, marketers should qualify renewable materials claims if the item is not made entirely with renewable materials (excluding minor, incidental components).

Made with Renewable Energy

Marketers should not make unqualified renewable energy claims if the power used to manufacture any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels.

Marketers should qualify claims by specifying the source of renewable energy (e.g., wind or solar). Additionally, marketers should qualify claims if less than all, or virtually all, of the significant manufacturing processes involved in making the product/package were powered with renewable energy or conventional energy offset by renewable energy certificates (“RECs”).

Marketers that generate renewable energy (e.g., by using solar panels), but sell RECs for all of the renewable energy they generate, should not represent that they use renewable energy.

Carbon Offsets

Marketers should have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support their carbon offset claims, including using appropriate accounting methods to ensure they are properly quantifying emission reductions and are not selling those reductions more than once.

Marketers should disclose if the offset purchase funds emission reductions that will not occur for two years or longer.

Marketers should not advertise a carbon offset if the activity that forms the basis of the offset is already required by law.

As of today the FTC has only outlined proposed changes to its guidelines but has not in fact issued any new ones.

SignGrafx and Green Product Offering

In conclusion our company supplies signage and graphics and is extremely interested in being able to supply our customers “Green” product alternatives whenever possible. We research our green offerings extensively and advertise and label these to the best of our ability so that our customers can make an informed decision. We however also know that we can only rely on the information we receive from our raw material suppliers and can not guarantee the validity of any claims made by them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.