When you buy a product, whether it’s shampoo or a set of dishes, if it says “green” on the label, you’d like to believe the product was sustainably produced, contains no harmful chemicals, and so on.
But, according to a study released in October, more than 95 percent of consumer products claiming to be “green” are guilty of “greenwashing,” defined as misleading consumers about the environmental practices of an organization or benefits or a product or service. TerraChoice, a North American environmental company recently acquired by Underwriters Laboratories Inc.’s global network, released the study, The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition.
The 2010 study, which found that unsubstantiated “green” claims have dropped off slightly since 2009, looked at more than 5,000 consumer products in the U.S. and Canada and found more than 12,000 “green” claims among them. Product categories studied included baby care products, toys, office products, health and beauty products, house wares, and consumer electronics. The most infractions, such as fibbing about or having no proof of environmental claims and vague marketing language (“all natural”), occurred among “immature” market categories especially among toys and baby products.
In 2007, when the first study was conducted, concerns were raised over products that claimed to be Bisphenol A or BPA-free. Because questions have come up about BPA’s potential health effects, especially its impact on fetal and infant brains, Canada has added the compound to its toxic-substances list. Other health concerns have been raised about phthalates, substances added to plastics to increase flexibility, durability, and longevity. Both BPA and phthalates were commonly used in the manufacture of baby bottles and cups and children’s toys. The TerraChoice study states that no “green” toy was completely free of greenwashing, and less than one percent of baby products were “sin free.”
In a Wall Street Journal article dated October 26, 2010, Scot Case, a market-development director for Underwriters Laboratories was quoted, saying, “The scary thing is that manufacturers are not providing independent proof of these claims. The same verification we expect from accounting records, we should expect from PBA claims.”
Both Underwriters Laboratories can TerraChoice offer green-certification programs and could benefit if more manufacturers ask for third-party verification of “green” claims.
The study was released just days after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FCC) proposed stricter guidelines to curb greenwashing. The agency is revising and making more specific guidelines that were first published in 1998 to stop companies from claiming products are chemical-free, recycled or recyclable when they are not. New requirements for the use of phrases such as “made with renewable materials,” “made with renewable energy,” and “carbon offsets” are also being added. The new rules are expected to be adopted early next year.
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