Just How Green Are Those “Green” Products?

Why you should be skeptical about green products labels: Internet Scambusters #604

Is it safe to take labeling at face value on supposedly environmentally friendly products?

Apparently not, but, if you follow this week’s guide to what the law says about the use of some of the terms used by manufacturers and marketers, you’re less likely to be duped.

We also have a warning about an anti-spam spam message!

Let’s get started…

Just How Green Are Those “Green” Products?

We’re all used to seeing “biodegradable” on labels these days and it makes us feel good to buy green products.

But, as we sometimes find in the scambusting world, all is often not what it seems.

Along with other green tags, like “organic” and “recyclable,” a declaration that a product is biodegradable may conceal all kinds of qualifications or may even be untrue.

For instance, consumer trading standards officials recently discovered an Oregon producer of disposal diaper liners and baby wipes that was making allegedly deceptive claims about its products’ environmentally friendly credentials.

A settlement with the Federal Trade Commission banned the company from making claims about biodegradability or compostability “unless they are true.”

The company had claimed its products were “100% biodegradable” and “certified biodegradable” when, in fact, they did not meet the definition of the term, which requires a product to “completely break down and decompose into elements found in nature within one year after customary disposal, which is in the trash.”

The liners were also not considered compostable if they were soiled — as most baby hygiene products tend to be!

“Whether they’re buying diapers or dishwashers, consumers base their purchasing decisions on claims about a product’s attributes,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “And the claims for these diapers just didn’t pass our smell test.”

The case underlines the value of being skeptical about product labeling, as we reported about the term “organic” in an earlier issue on food scams, Can You Trust That Label — Or Does It Hide a Food Scam?

This and other confusing terminology is comprehensively covered in the FTC’s Green Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims — but these tend to be more targeted at manufacturers and retailers than consumers.

How to Protect Yourself

So what can you do to protect yourself from potentially misleading claims?

To an extent, we have to take such claims on trust and rely on the FTC to monitor claims on our behalf.

But it also helps to have a clearer understanding of what lies behind some of the terms.

The Commission advises consumers: “With so many marketers using the Green Guides as a road map for their green claims, it’s good for you to know what those green terms mean, as well.

“As you shop and compare products, look for details about what makes the package or product green, or what might have earned it a special seal or certification.”

The FTC requires that manufacturers and sellers comply with their definition of terms that include:

  • “Free of…” which has to mean there’s no more than a harmless trace of whatever it’s claiming to be free of, or indeed of anything that poses similar risks.
  • “VOC-free” requires that products don’t contain “volatile organic compounds,” which emit potentially unhealthful gases. These are sometimes found in paints and household products.
  • “Non-toxic” means it has to be provably safe for both humans and the environment. If it’s only safe for one or the other, the packaging should say so.
  • “Ozone-friendly” requires proof that products won’t harm the upper ozone layer. This gas has different effects according to where it is — ozone at ground level can be unhealthful.
  • “Less waste” — Often used in packaging. The marketer must be able to demonstrate a specific percentage less waste than a previous product.
  • “Biodegradable” — There’s that term again. The FTC explains that something that’s biodegradable, like food or leaves, must break down and decompose when exposed to light, air, moisture, certain bacteria, or other organisms.”But even if a product is biodegradable under some circumstances, what happens if it goes to a landfill?” it says.”Landfills are designed to shut out sunlight, air, and moisture. That keeps pollutants out of the air and drinking water, but also slows decomposition. Even materials like paper and food could take decades to decompose in a landfill.

    “If a company says its product or package is ‘degradable,’ it should have proof that the product will completely break down and return to nature within a year. A company shouldn’t say a product is degradable if the product is headed for a landfill, incinerator, or recycling center.”

  • “Compostable” means the product should be safe in home compost heaps. This apparently wasn’t the case with the diaper company we mentioned earlier.
  • “Recyclable” means, well, the product can be recycled. The claim can be used even if you can’t actually recycle it where you live because the facility is not available; the product just has to be capable of being recycled.
  • “Recycled” — Products must say what proportion is from materials kept out of or diverted from the trash. The claim should also make clear whether it’s the packaging or the contents that are made from recycled materials.

For more information about the use of recycling terms, see The Language of Recycling.

Seals and More

Finally, also be wary about the use of seals and certification claims on packaging.

They can be useful, says the FTC, but only if they’re backed up by standards, and include an explanation of what they mean. Packaging should also declare if the producer has any connection with the organization behind the seal.

Knowing more about labeling of green products may help you make better informed buying decisions but, as the commission says: “The fact is that all packaging and products have some environmental impact.”

Alert of the Week: Watch out for a spam email that claims to protect you against… spam! The message says your spam emails are in a “Quarantine Digest” and provides a link so you can supposedly inspect them.

But the link leads to a phishing page where you’re asked to provide personal details. Don’t click!

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.