Oh, what a tangled web they weave when businesses set out either to deceive consumers or aspirationally advertise green credentials they haven’t earned. Too often, marketers fall into the trap of making unverifiable eco-positive claims, a practice known as greenwashing.
Because some consumers have indicated they will pay more money for products they believe to be environmentally friendly, it’s only natural that corporations depict their goods and services as worth that premium, dousing ads in Pantone shades of Foliage, Greenbriar or Treetop and virtue-signaling with stock phrases and clichés.
Forty-five percent of Americans want to be viewed as eco-friendly consumers, according to the results in September of an unpublished 2022 Eco Pulse study from Shelton Group. "In other words, ‘eco friendliness’ is part of the personal brand of nearly half of the American population," said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of Shelton Group and a leading expert on sustainability communications. "If they buy your product as an expression of that brand attribute and later find out it was a lie, you’ve not only lost their trust … you’ve embarrassed them in the court of public opinion. And that’s a recipe for cancellation."
Greenwashing not only backfires and turns off discriminating shoppers and shareholders, it can also subject a business to legal trouble and hefty fines.
Corporations should therefore heed the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides, also known as the "Guides for the user of environmental marketing claims." They're not legally binding, but the agency can take enforcement action against the businesses violating them. The FTC in December opened public comments through Feb. 21 toward its next updates of the Green Guides. The guides were last revised a decade ago. Movement to quash greenwashing isn't limited to the United States; the European Union is also working on new rules to combat vague green marketing.
Sustainability professionals are mostly aware of this, according to Shelton. "But given the number of examples of greenwashing I regularly snap photos of, those guidelines aren’t often getting passed along to the communications people whose job is to feed the social media beast," she said. The consequences of penalties and fines outweigh the costs of hiring a sustainability communications firm or simply building in other safeguards to prevent greenwashing, Shelton added.
The following terms are either on the FTC's list as flags for greenwashing when used in marketing materials or labels, or should be on your radar because they're drawing recent criticism from watchdog groups.
General marketing claims
"Green," "eco-friendly," "environmentally friendly," "natural," "sustainable." Although these general terms alone may not provoke FTC scrutiny, they're often used in a broad and therefore misleading way. The agency has called out "green" and "eco-friendly" specifically, while some consumer groups have called for the other terms above to get a similar treatment in the next FTC Green Guides refresh.
The agency frowns upon unspecified general claims about an environmental benefit, partly because calling something "eco-friendly" implies that it has no unwanted impacts. Qualify these statements with "clear, prominent and specific" environmental benefits, the FTC urges. In addition, analyze the tradeoffs of the benefits that are advertised, and don’t tout trivial benefits.
What does that look like?
Shelton named the labeling on bags (see above) of the low-preservative Kettle Chips brand of potato chips as great examples of fairly technical messages that consumers can easily digest. "All the messages are supported — not just lofty platitudes — and, with the help of graphics, put across in a way that is both engaging for a consumer, but also might teach them something — all while helping them feel great about Kettle Chips."
Does the carbon offset provider use sound science and accounting practices to back up the claims it makes about its carbon offsets? Then you may describe them in marketing, according to the FTC. However, make sure to disclose if the CO2 emissions won’t be reduced until two or more years pass, and don't sell the same emission reduction more than once. The FTC said in December that it expects comments on "carbon offsets" in particular for the next Green Guides.
Certified by / Seal of approval by
The FTC may consider certifications and seals of approval to be endorsements, which have their own set of rules. To use a green certification or seal of approval on marketing or packaging, make it clear if your company is materially connected with the group behind it, such as receiving funds from it. Claims, whether explicit or implied, must be substantiated, and the basis for the certification or seal should be clear. If not, your company should make implied environmental benefits clear in a prominent way or link to a website for accurate background details.
Was it alive, like a plant, or part of a living thing, like a pig bone? Then it may belong in a compost bin. However, you can’t call a product "compostable" if someone can’t compost it safely and in a "timely" fashion at home. That is, if an item remains largely in its original form one year later while the rest of a backyard compost pile has transformed into fluffy fertilizer, then don't market it as compostable. If the product or packaging requires composting in a big industrial facility unavailable to most consumers, then a compostable claim may be bunk, according to the FTC, which expects the public to address "compostable" and "degradable" in guidance for its updated guides.
Degradable / Biodegradable
Will the product and its package break down completely and "return to nature" within a year? Then you can call it "degradable," the FTC says. If not, or if the item will ultimately pile up in a landfill, burn in an incinerator or be recycled, then avoid the term and its siblings, such as "oxo-biodegradable."
What if trace amounts of a "free of" ingredient sneaked in during processing? That’s OK if the amount doesn’t cause harm or wasn’t added intentionally, according to the FTC. However, if the product is "free of" one substance yet contains another equally environmentally risky one, steer clear of the term. Also avoid it if you’re slapping this phrase on a product that normally wouldn’t contain that absent substance in the first place.
Less waste than / Less toxic than
Less than what? To make a source reduction claim, you should detail what is being compared, according to the FTC. That means spelling out, for instance, that the bottle produces 20 percent less waste than the previous version of the product.
Made with renewable energy
A company that uses fossil fuel-based energy shouldn't make this claim unless it buys renewable energy credits (RECs), the FTC says. If your factory runs on 40 percent wind power, say so specifically, the agency advises. Don't make a broad "made with renewable energy" claim unless that's true for the vast majority of the processes that go into making a product. In addition, if your facilities operate on wind and solar, but your company sells the RECs to a third party, don't claim to either use or "host" renewable energy, the FTC stipulates.
Made with renewable materials
What does that even mean? Do the materials grow themselves? Are you telling the customer they’re getting something recycled or biodegradable? The FTC advises to describe the actual material and enumerate what makes it renewable, and to refrain if that only comprises a small amount of the product.
Who said your product didn’t or couldn't possibly chemically harm a person or an ecosystem? Back that claim up with science, the FTC says.
Ozone-safe or ozone-friendly
The FTC considers these terms deceptive if a product has any substance, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), known to erode the ozone layer. On a related note, claiming a product is "CFC-free" is a no-no because chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) have been banned in aerosols since 1994, and it's no bragging matter to be compliant. Expect "ozone-friendly" to be under scrutiny as the next Green Guides are developed, as the FTC recently flagged the term.
You know the practice of "wishcycling," which describes how when you aspire to recycle something unusual (say, an umbrella) you throw it in the recycling bin (George, I’m looking at you). However, in this current dimension of time and space, the local recycling facility can’t recycle the item, so it winds up in a landfill. The corporate corollary here comes when engineers build a product that could be recycled, in theory, and the company really wants it to be recycled and so slaps "recyclable" on it. However, if there is no widespread, realistic recycling infrastructure available in at least 60 percent of communities where the item is sold, it is probably bound for a landfill, and the FTC says you can't call it "recyclable."
Flexible plastic grocery bags labeled "recyclable" and featuring the chasing arrows symbol with a number to identify the plastic type are a prime example of greenwashing, according to Shelton. "That’s my biggest watch-out for brands," she said. "Stop putting the chasing arrows on products and putting a number in the middle if that number in the middle isn’t widely recyclable and accepted in curbside systems."
It’s OK to specify that your product or packaging contains 20 percent recycled material, if that much content has been taken out of the waste stream and used in actual production. However, the FTC considers it misleading if an item is labeled "recycled" but uses "used, reconditioned or remanufactured components." The FTC recently specified that it seeks input on both "recycled" and "recycled content" while public comments are open.
Technically nearly every vessel can be refilled, but does the seller either include refills as part of its business model or offer to do the refilling? If not, the FTC says to leave this term off the package.
More terms to be wary of
Beyond the terms above, explicitly mentioned in the FTC Green Guides, many other catchphrases have earned ire from consumer groups over the years. Some industry observers anticipate that the FTC will add more clarity about some language listed below. The ultimate decision will at least partly be informed by public comments on the next version of the Green Guides.
Is there such a thing as clean coal? Your B.S. meter should beep when the word "clean" sidles up next to a dirty word to wash it. Consumers hear it, too. In November, a New York woman filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit against Sephora because its "clean" mascara had a synthetic ingredient.
An environmentally "conscious" label implies a benevolent intent in product development. Linguistics professors probably have fun with this. Why not say "conscientious" rather than a word describing the state of not sleeping? Aside from that grammatical pet peeve, "conscious" is often used in an unprovable way that may rankle authorities. For example, H&M is the target of a class action lawsuit for misrepresenting clothes sold under its premium "Conscious Choice" label, which were supposed to be made from "at least 50 percent of more sustainable materials" yet displayed misleading environmental scorecards. Dutch authorities recently forced the fast-fashion company to stop using both "conscious" and "ecodesign."
Don’t talk up "low carbon" intentions if you can’t back them up with actions. Case in point: Major global CO2 emitters Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell dramatically ramped up the use of terms such as "low carbon" to indicate an embrace of cleaner technologies in their annual reports between 2009 and 2020, according to a February study in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Public Library of Science (PLOS) One. However, in the same time period, the companies dramatically ramped up oil and gas exploration, while their renewable energy efforts remained unclear. Therefore, corporate actions did not match their pledges. "Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded," the report’s authors wrote.
Corporate net-zero emissions pledges have exploded since the signing of the Paris Agreement treaty in 2015. However, not all net-zero pledges are created equal. "The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through," wrote U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in November.
The United Nations seeks to crack down on subpar net-zero claims. (The watchdog Net Zero Tracker scrutinizes the quality of net-zero commitments by 800 companies and counting.)
Even if your company made a net-zero commitment in good faith, put aside "creative" carbon accounting tricks and start reducing absolute emissions. What does it take to build a credible net-zero commitment? The "Integrity Matters" report released by a U.N. expert group in November offered copious details. Here’s a summary by Guterres:
Net-zero pledges must be in line with [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scenarios limiting warming to 1.5 degrees [Celsius]. That means global emissions must decline by at least 45 percent by 2030 — and reach net zero by 2050. Pledges should have interim targets every five years starting in 2025. And these targets must cover all greenhouse gas emissions and all scopes of emissions. For financial institutions, this means all financed activities. For businesses, it means all emissions — direct, indirect and those originating from supply chains. And for cities and regions, it means all territorial emissions.
This is a relatively new term that companies are using to describe how they seek to offset the use of plastic, usually in packaging. For example, although they sell a soap in a plastic bottle, they’ve paid a third party to rescue the equivalent amount of plastic from the ocean. Although probably well-meaning, this claim is hard to regulate and verify. Carbon dioxide comes in one form, for instance, while there are at least seven types of common plastics.
Regenerative farming practices, such as rotating crops and foregoing tilling, have powerful potential to keep carbon in the ground. However, the definition for "regenerative" varies. Meanwhile, corporate money has been surging into efforts to boost regenerative farming, some of which is launched only so it can be advertised to offset carbon pollution elsewhere. There are certifications in this space, such as Regenerative Organic Certified from the Rodale Institute, which promoted regenerative farming four decades ago.
Yet who is measuring the amount of carbon sequestered, and how? What’s a fair margin of error? The embrace of "regenerative" as a new trend also overlooks millennia of Indigenous practices. What is the social impact of regenerative farming when the vast majority of farmland is owned by white people, thanks to past and present policies favoring them? Is “regenerative” about the methods used or the outcomes they achieve?
The term is also being used broadly, as in the intention Walmart expressed in 2020 to become a "regenerative company." Expect these and other questions to emerge on the horizon. For now, companies are free to broadcast their regenerative efforts without fear of regulatory reprisals.