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The Green Life: Ask Mr. Green: Which Green Labels Can I Trust?

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July 19, 2013

Ask Mr. Green: Which Green Labels Can I Trust?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

Hypothetically, you walk into a store and there are four of the same type of product.  One is 100% natural, one is 100% sustainably sourced, one 100% biodegradable, and one 100% chemical free. What is the best product to buy?  Does it matter?  Are some labels better than others?

—Angela, in Ventura, California

You’re opening a big can of ugly green worms here, because so many products have such a complicated history, and green marketing claims have multiplied with blinding speed. All those 100% claims are darn squirrely, because they can be 100% of very little or nothing, and whether they’re 100% natural, sustainably sourced, biodegradable, or chemical-free depends on how you define the terms. "Biodegradable" is probably the most useless and irrelevant description, for the simple reason that not all things biodegrade equally in different settings, plus biodegradable plastics can contaminate other recycled plastics, rendering them useless. On top of this, biodegrading is not necessarily a good thing, because it can release carbon dioxide and methane.

"Natural" is the most deceptive of the terms. For example, I’m looking at a package from Trader Joe’s, which says “Natural Pork* Boneless Loin Chops. The big asterisk leads us to tiny print below that whispers “Minimally processed, no artificial ingredients.” Well duh. Most pork chops are minimally processed and don’t contain artificial ingredients. But the pigs themselves could well have been raised in polluting factories, fed chemically farmed grain, and shot up with antibiotics. (By the way, you can petition this company to stop carrying such meat, and also petition your congressional reps to enact a ban on unnecessary use of antibiotics on livestock at Food and Water Watch’s site.) 

The number of products falsely trumpeting their environmental virtue grew almost 75 percent, from 2,739 to 4,744 from 2009 to 2010 alone, according to the venerable Underwriters Laboratories. The scope of deception was so stupendous that UL resorted to theological language to characterize it, by defining the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing,” and proceeding to note that only 4.5 percent of the “green” products were “sin-free.” I suppose the good news is that this was an improvement from the previous survey, when UL found a mere 2 percent blameless. So your can of worms might even be half full instead of half empty, since business is waking up to the concerns of environmentalists.

But the problem of “greenwashing” remains huge and confusing. The Federal Trade Commission has released a summary of new guidelines to help sort out legitimate claims from greenwash. If you really want to geek out, you can view the entire 36-page set of guidelines. The FTC’s basic rule is that “Marketers should not make broad, unqualified general environmental benefit claims like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly,’ ” when they present no specific evidence to back up the claim. When they say “free-of,” for example, it’s considered deceptive marketing if the product never had the substance in the first place, e.g., when a potato chip package blurts out “cholesterol-free.” I find it amazing that while the FTC lists numerous examples of bogus claims, it is silent on the use of the aforementioned term “natural.”

What consumers really need is a reliable certification, like the USDA’s organic seal, which tells you clearly at a glance the product’s solid main virtue. Instead, we’re stuck with hundreds of different seals. Out of this admittedly colorful splash of marketing, only 24 certifiers have been deemed reliable by Underwriters Laboratories. Another good tool to sort out green claims is Consumer Reports’ eco-labels site.

If you think a product is violating the guidelines, you can file a complaint with the FTC.  Your tax dollars at work. If enough of us squawk, we may even begin to gain more clarity on this mind-bogglingly baffling issue. —Bob Schildgen

Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!


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