Do you want to buy products that are good for the environment? Many companies bet that you do. They make claims and design packages to promote the green attributes of their products. But what do those claims tell you?
The Green Guides, enforced by the FTC, explain standards for truth in green advertising. The Guides’ message for businesses: you must have sound science to back up the green claims you make for your products. The Guides’ message for you: when you shop, look for specific information on packages and products that explains why the product is getting a green promotion. If you don’t find those specifics, you can choose another product.
What’s the Deal With Green Marketing Claims?
Green. Environmentally safe. Eco friendly. Claims like these may sound great, but let’s face it: they’re too vague to be meaningful. The fact is, all products have some environmental impact.
Many marketers use the Green Guides as a road map for their green claims, and it’s good for you to know what those terms mean, too. As you shop and compare products, look for details about what makes them green, or why they have a special seal or certification.
"Free Of” and Other Common Claims
Companies may make a point of telling you their products are “free of” a chemical or ingredient that may be a concern. When marketers say a product is “free of” an ingredient, they should be able to prove that the product doesn’t have any more than a harmless trace amount of it — and that the product is free of any other ingredient that poses the same kind of risk.
For example, you may have seen products labeled “low-VOC” or “VOC-free.” VOCs — or volatile organic compounds — are found in products including paint, household cleaners, floor polishes, charcoal lighter fluid, windshield wiper fluid and some hair styling products. They are emitted as gases, and may cause smog by contributing to ground-level ozone formation, or have negative effects on your health.
Marketers who say a product is “non-toxic” should have proof that the product is safe for both humans and the environment. If it’s safe for humans or the environment, the product should say which one the non-toxic claim applies to.
All ozone is not alike. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere prevents harmful radiation from the sun from reaching the earth. But ozone at ground level forms smog and can cause serious breathing problems for some people.
If a company claims its products are "ozone-friendly" or "ozone safe," it should have proof that the products do not harm the upper ozone layer and the air at ground level.
A marketer should do more than claim its product or package is made with “less waste;” it should give specifics about the comparison. For example, a company could say a product has 10 percent less waste than a previous product.
Seals and Certifications
You see a picture of the globe with the words "Earth Smart" on a product. What does that mean? Seals or certifications can be useful, but only if they’re backed up by solid standards and give you enough information to understand what they mean. A package also should tell you about any connections the company has to the organization behind the seal, if a connection might influence your opinion about the seal or certificate.
Biodegradable and Compostable
Marketers often claim their product is “degradable” or “biodegradable,” but if a product is headed for a landfill (where most trash ends up), a company shouldn’t make this claim without explaining how long the product will take to degrade and how much it will break down over time.
Something that’s biodegradable, like food or leaves, breaks down and decomposes into elements found in nature when it’s exposed to light, air, moisture, certain bacteria, or other organisms. But most trash ends up in landfills which are designed to shut out sunlight, air and moisture. That keeps pollutants out of the air and drinking water, but also slows decomposition. Things — like food — that usually decompose quickly, could take decades (or longer) to decompose in a landfill
If a company says its product is “degradable,” and the product is typically thrown out in the trash, the company should have proof that the product will completely break down and return to nature in a landfill in the time or at the rate the ad states.
Some materials break down into useable compost, a material that enriches the soil and returns nutrients to the earth. Some people make compost with yard trimmings and food scraps, and many communities collect leaves, grass, and other yard trimmings for composting.
When you see "compostable" on a product or package, it means the manufacturer should be able to prove the material can be composted safely in home compost piles. If it can't be, the manufacturer should tell you that.
Recyclable and Made With Recycled Content
A company can say a product is recyclable — or put the universal recycling symbol on it — if most people who buy the product can recycle it. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to recycle it in your area. Ask your city or county government about local recycling options.
Made with recycled content
Recycled content is material that was kept out of the trash, either during the manufacturing process or after people used it. If a product says it’s made with recycled content, look for specifics. For example, are the claims about the product, the package, or both? How much of the product or package is made with recycled content? If the product or package isn’t made completely from recycled materials, the label should tell you how much is.
For more, read The Language of Recycling.
Renewable Materials, Renewable Energy, and Carbon Offsets
Made With Renewable Materials
A marketer that claims a product or package was made with renewable materials might tell you what the materials are, why they’re renewable, and how much of the product was made with renewable material. For example, a manufacturer could say, “Our flooring is made from 100% bamboo, which grows at the same rate as we use it.”
Made With Renewable Energy
A company can power its manufacturing with renewable energy like wind or solar energy, or with non-renewable fossil fuels like coal or petroleum. A company that uses non-renewable fossil fuels for manufacturing can buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) to “offset” the non-renewable energy it used.
If a manufacturer says a product is “made with renewable energy,” all, or almost all, of the significant manufacturing processes should be powered by renewable energy, or by non-renewable energy matched by RECs. If that’s not true, the manufacturer should tell you how much of the process is powered that way.
A company that takes actions — like planting trees — to reduce greenhouse gasses can get credits for those “carbon offset” activities. Some companies that earn carbon offset credits sell them to other companies that might want to reduce their “carbon footprints.”