(Beyond Pesticides, October 12, 2010) In an effort to reduce confusion among consumers trying to decipher the wide variety of green claims, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is revising its “Green Guides,” guidelines for companies seeking to promote their products as environmentally friendly. As consumers have become more aware of the environmental effects of the products they use, “green” marketing claims have become more prevalent. When a product carries the organic label, consumers can be confident that it has met strict standards and was certified by an independent organization, but many other labels are simply attempts at “green washing” conventional products to charge a premium to environmentally conscience consumers.
Market research has shown that consumers often misunderstand the intentions of some green claims. Some labels make claims that are too broad and difficult to quantify. The revised guidelines advise producers not to make such broad claims on labels such as “environmentally friendly,” because according to an FTC consumer perception study, consumers often assume the product has far reaching environmental benefits. “What companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. The proposed guidelines are also intended to clarify claims such as: biodegradable, renewable materials, or renewable energy.
FTC is currently taking public comments until December 10, 2010. The “Green Guides” are only guidelines and not enforceable as law. The FTC can, however, take action if it deems a company’s marketing to be deceptive or misleading. This is the first time in twelve years that the FTC will revise its green marketing guidelines. The “Green Guides were originally issued in 1992 with the purpose of helping companies ensure the claims they make are true and substantiated. The “Green Guides” were revised in 1996 and again in 1998.
Unfortunately some supposedly green labels mean very little. For example, the “Earth Friendly Farm Friendly” label found on some dairy products actually encourages the use of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics to increase production. Sarah Lee has been accused of green washing for creating a line called Earth Grains bread. Despite a major marketing campaign to push the products as environmentally friendly, the grains for the breads are produced with only a slight decrease in the amount of synthetic fertilizer used.
With so many different claims about environmentally friendly products it’s easy for a consumer to feel confused and even intimidated. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps a consumer can take to learn more about these claims. It is important to read product labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and find out the ingredients being used. The ingredients speak for themselves. If you are unsure about one or more ingredients, or do not understand the label, you may wish to research them either on the internet, at the local library or by contacting a group knowledgeable about that type of product, such as Beyond Pesticides.
When shopping for food, USDA Certified Organic labels are the best bet. The USDA Organic Label is intended to show consumers that the product adheres to uniform standard which meet the requirements of the National Organic Program Final Rule. When choosing a product that is better for the environment, it is important that consumers are informed. It is due to consumer demand that the National Organic Standards Program was created. Consumers should read labels and do their homework to avoid being taken in by a company’s green washing. For more information on reading through “Green” consumer claims, read Beyond Pesticides’ “Making Sure Green Consumer Claims are Truthful” from Pesticides and You.
Organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Instead of using these harmful products and practices, organic agriculture utilizes techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting to produce healthy soil, prevent pest and disease problems, and grow healthy food and fiber.
Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to a serious public health and environmental threat. For more information on organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Program.