Walking through the aisles of any big box store can be an uplifting experience in thinking of the progress the world has made towards better stewardship of the environment. The number of labels ones sees identifying contents as recycled or recyclable, Earth friendly, good for the environment, environmentally safe, go green, etc. The prominent descriptions decrying the benefits to the world in purchasing their product is genuinely impressive. A quick glance through the yellow pages or the newspaper advertisements for services and businesses once again will find unending claims of the Eco conscious and environmentally ethical position of cleaners, builders, craftsman, and business services.
With the written signs of dedication that industry and big business is making to the environment (as made obvious by the packaging and promotion of so many consumer products) it is surprising there is still any concerns left for global warming or preserving the environment. Even the oil and gas industry make clear their dedication to saving the environment if one is to believe what they read. So if all are as fully committed to the environment as what we see and hear would leave us to believe, what is the problem?
Simply put, the problem is what we see and hear cannot be believed. Statistical interpretation (perhaps statistical manipulation would be a more accurate term) allows anybody with 15 minutes and a creative mind to make a logical statistical argument for any position they choose and to show the truth of any lie they want to tell. In the loosely regulated world of promotional advertising concerning the environmental friendliness of any specific company or product, any adjective is fair game so long as they are comparing it to “something”.
Take for example coal burning furnace that is labeled as “with Clean Burning System for a better environment” (cleaner burning than what or when I am sure is found under footnote 53A on page 19 of the Chinese text version of owner’s manual). The clear implication is that they are trying to (and often are successful at) convince would be consumers that coal furnace is good for the environment.
The point to be made is this type of packaging is rampant in everyday products filling the shelves of stores all across the country. The unofficial term for this is GreenWashing. The issue is that so long as it is simply informational advertising, and they can provide any comparison or reason it is completely legal. The FTC prohibits intentional deception, but by failing to provide definitions themselves deception is far too common. What is the big deal? Why not caveat emptor like with any other advertising?
The best explanation was used in the fight for regulation of food and nutritional labeling. Since the consumer has no way of comparing these items for themselves, they must rely on certain keywords that have an accepted meaning. In the food industry things like low fat, fat free, and reduced fat were similarly abused as advertising gimmicks until federal regulations codified the definitions. Then the regulations went a step further and listed an entire set of synonyms that would need to meet the same requirements as the original word. In this manner, now when a consumer walks into the grocery store and sees certain labels or claims they can have some confidence that it is legitimate.
Surveys show 71% of consumers will make purchase decisions based in part on environmental claims. With better than 2 out of every 3 retail purchases being influenced by claims of being more environmentally friendly, retail packages provide the business with a means of delivering an important sales message to the consumer. Unfortunately for the eco conscious consumer, many of those messages are more promotional fiction than actual fact.
While the Federal Trade Commission does have regulatory guidance in the form of “Green Guides” which was updated as the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims; Final Rule, October of 2012 that explain the use of some specific terms and cautions against deceptive advertising it falls far short of the simple and consumer friendly nutritional labeling requirements.
In the FTC Green Guides the use of terms like recyclable, bio degradable, and renewable are defined. This leaves all of the most common actual descriptive words like “Green”, “Eco Friendly” and “Environmentally Sound Process” as simple adjectives with no real definition. It is these larger print adjectives that lead to actual buying decisions. The word “Green” in big green letters means far more to the average consumer than a list of “bio degradable and recyclable and made of recycled materials or components” in small letters.
While many corporations would argue you cannot really define simple adjectives, the food industry regulations have proven you can very effectively and with little difficulty - by clearly defining the common words and terms used in food advertising (as well as a list of synonyms that must meet the same guidelines). This simple and well understood process has made it so consumers can choose foods based on facts as opposed to advertising gimmicks.
The next step the FDA took for the food industry by adding labeling of the contents and nutritional value should also be considered by the FTC for adaptation to consumer products in general. It is not unreasonable to think consumers may want to know what is in the stuffing of that new mattress or sofa they will be sleeping on, or the mercury or other heavy metal content of products they bring into their home. Much as food labeling, nobody is forced to read it, but for those interested it should be available. Why should a vegan have to guess whether the origins of padding for furniture if it says it is made of “all natural bio degradable materials” is plant based or based?
The answer the FTC has to all of this is to suggest that consumers utilize 3rd party certifications. The US Small Business Administration has guidance on trades and craftsman wishing to use green certification and eco-labeling. There are many excellent and well known organizations that offer environmental certifications. While many are very sound (and the FTC does set forth guidelines on what must be done to claim certification authority) there are simply too many for any consumer to know which are better or even completely legitimate. Every 3rd party certification group sets its own standards for giving out the certification . The “Platinum Award” from one group may not even meet minimum requirements from another.
This leads the consumer believe any type of decal or emblem for environmentally sound manufacturing or service is good, but without extensive research on the consumers part they have no way of knowing how it compares to a similar product with a different seal or emblem of certification. If there were published minimum criteria for any type of certification, as well as established minimums and maximums for each level of award like Gold, Silver, or Bronze then a consumer could base buying decisions on facts. They would not need to guess if XYZ’s “Platinum Award for Environment” is better or worse than the Sierra Club endorsement as an example.
The environment is too important and with 70% of consumers using the environment when choosing where and how to spend money, the economic impact is too great to not provide for specific clear and understandable definitions. If a person goes into buy eggs they can see Organic Free Range eggs for $5 a dozen and factory farm eggs for $3 a dozen they have real information about the way they were produced and make their own choice. The same should be the case if the see a label for “Green” on a product.
The decade old cries for standardized definitions for Green and Eco labeling of products and services is not to limit choice in any way. It does not mandate higher standards or require changes in production or content. It would simply allow consumers to make an informed choice when purchasing products that claim benefits for the environment. It would reward those companies that go the extra mile in both product and production of that product to be recognized, and to be a legitimate choice for those that decide it matters.
It is the difference between companies that follow a few basic tips for being run in an environmentally friendly manner just so they can slap a “Green” slogan in their advertising, and those that are actually dedicated to producing a socially and environmentally friendly product. The current situation of confusion and ambiguous definitions puts those companies with sincere commitment to the environment at a disadvantage, while rewarding businesses that mislead.