Government Proposes Tighter Rules to Curb Greenwashing

by , 10/07/10

greenwashing, how to avoid greenwashing, government claims, government seals, green seals, green claims, product green claims, non toxic, compostable, biodegradable, how to tell if a product is green, how to tell if a product is eco friendly

It’s natural! It’s compostable! It’s biodegradable! It’s non-toxic! We’re living in a world of green claims that can sometimes seem unrealistic and unprovable. Well yesterday, the US Federal Trade Commission proposed a host of revisions to the current Green Guide to make those claims a little clearer and to make it harder for companies to claim false green credentials. It covers everything from recycling, to composting, to the chemical makeup of a product and just might help the general public out in deciding what products are truly environmentally friendly.

greenwashing, how to avoid greenwashing, government claims, government seals, green seals, green claims, product green claims, non toxic, compostable, biodegradable, how to tell if a product is green, how to tell if a product is eco friendly

The new rules aren’t going to make it a perfect world — one where all green labels are as strict as fuel claims or organic seals — but they are a step up from where we are now. The current system allows companies to put claims on their products that are completely unsubstantiated or misleading. For instance, “free of non-toxic dyes” can mean that the product is free of some non-toxic dyes but not others. A claim of “no parabens” can mean that it doesn’t have parabens — preservatives used in cosmetics that are proven endocrine disruptors that are linked to breast cancer — but that it does contain other chemicals that are just as damaging. The Green Guide was created in 1992 and was updated last in 1998 and seems to lend itself to a whole slew of greenwashing claims.

The proposed updates to the Green Guides will help businesses better align their product claims with consumer expectations,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. For instance a claim of “biodegradable” will have to mean that the product will biodegrade in less than a year and can’t be placed on a product destined for the landfill because it most likely won’t biodegrade there anyway. A claim of compostable must mean that the product is proven to completely compost in the time that it takes other refuse to compost in a regular compost bin. In general the rules are meant to make stricter guidelines on how producers will qualify their claims to make sure they are real, take into account how consumers shop and how they interpret claims all in order to help curb consumer deception. The FTC will be taking consumer feedback about the new proposed guidelines until December 10th of this year, after which the finalized rules will go into effect.

+ Submit your own ideas for the guide here

+ The Federal Trade Comission

+ Read the proposed changes

+ Read the FTC’s statement

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1 Comment

  1. Susie Loewenstein October 12, 2010 at 4:39 am

    Ms. Liggett:

    You present a very perceptive look at greenwashing and the steps in motion to curb false environmental claims. As someone who is exceptionally interested in green trends, I strongly believe that deceptive product labeling can result in harming both human and environmental health. If product manufacturers continue to falsely label their packaging, eventually there will be no clear distinction between an earth-harming product and a product that is sustainable. As you mention in your post, the involvement of the FTC will greatly aid in the fight for honest advertising and although it may not be perfect, a more strictly regulated eco-label will prove wonders in the consumer world. Not only will consumers be able to understand exactly how the products they buy impact the earth, but this controlled system will also teach personal responsibility in our daily decisions as consumers.

    If more stringent eco-labeling regulations are achieved, will companies make greater efforts to jump on the green train? My guess is yes. Since this type of labeling will instill in consumers a greater awareness of the effect they can have on the environment, they will be more inclined to buy the eco-friendly product over a non-rated product (assuming the product is in a similar price range). However, is it possible that a stronger focus on the eco-label may lead to less concern over the quality of the product consumed? For example, Sunny Delight has launched huge efforts to reach a zero waste goal. Despite these drastic efforts taken to become more eco-friendly, the actual drink remains disguised under the image of health and vigor. Containing a scant 5% juice, this luminous children’s beverage has virtually no health benefits. One would expect such an earth-conscious company to pay the same attention to the product within the container. If consumers are faced with the decision to purchase an unhealthy product with a green label versus a healthy product without a green label, which product will prevail? Will green labels render nutrition labels inferior? How will this affect the health of children to whom we are trying to set an example of green living? Although there are many questions surrounding this issue, I am excited to see the future of green labeling and the day when I will be able to make consumer decisions not only by the nutrition label but also by the earth label.

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