CBS' EcoAds Accused of Greenwashing, Critics Lobby FTC

CBS' EcoAds Accused of Greenwashing, Critics Lobby FTC

Environmental groups yesterday urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate CBS Media's EcoAd program, charging that it is misleading to consumers and portrays advertisers in a greener light than they deserve. 

Through the EcoAd program, which CBS launched across its ad platforms earlier this year after purchasing advertising company EcoMedia in 2010, businesses can have a portion of their ad dollars go to local projects such as energy efficient retrofits and renewable energy installations. In exchange, their advertisements carry the EcoAd logo, a green leaf with "ecoad."

"Every time you see an EcoAd, you know that money is going directly to a bricks and mortar project that's putting people to work, saving taxpayer money, reducing carbon emissions, and improving the environment," says CBS-EcoMedia's website.

But by only putting the logo with no additional information on ads, some groups charge that the EcoAd is doing nothing more than greenwashing. CBS, meanwhile, says its website is clear about the program's purpose and notes that other environmental groups have publicly supported the program.

The Center for Environmental Health, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth and Ecopreneurist sent a letter [PDF] to the FTC, saying the EcoAd violates parts of the FTC's environmental marketing guidelines, commonly called the Green Guides.

The Green Guides are instructions on how businesses should, in advertising and marketing materials, talk about things like recyclable products, compostability, recycled content and reduced packaging. The guides, and proposed revisions, also warn against implying that a product or service has a general environmental benefit without substantiated claims.

Any company can take part in the EcoAd program, but CBS-EcoMedia says on its website's home page, "EcoMedia does not in any way certify, endorse or make any representations about EcoAd advertisers, their products or services."

What the environmental groups want to see, instead, is more information on the actual ads themselves explaining what the logo does and doesn't mean.

The EcoAd is available for online, billboard, TV and radio ads, and has been used by Pacific Gas and Electric, Chevrolet, SunPower, Arrowhead, Energy Star, Taco Bell, Jetblue and Interface, among others.

Not all are shining examples of environmental businesses, depending on one's perspective. Some consider putting a green leaf on ads by utilities with coal plants, fast food outlets or bottled water companies to be misleading.

"Eco-labels that can be bought for the price of a TV ad threaten to further erode consumer confidence and diminish the value of legitimate environmental practices," said Jennifer Kaplan, site director for Ecopreneurist, in a statement. "If CBS fails to provide a clear explanation on each ad about exactly what the digital green leaf means and who gets to participate in their Eco-Ad program, their program is just more greenwash."

CBS-EcoMedia, in turn, responds with the fact that its ads include the address for EcoAd's website, which explains the program and states that the EcoAd is not a certification program or seal of approval. The company also said it has commited to running ads that solely explain what the EcoAd is in markets where companies purchase EcoAds. 

"It appears that some groups who are not as familiar with our program would prefer it to be revised to match their tastes, even while they continue to acknowledge its power and potential to do great things for the environment. Meanwhile other groups, including many of the most recognizable leaders in the environmental community find our program to be exemplary," the company said in an emailed statement, noting that the EcoAd program has been endorsed or supported by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, and others.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated with responses from CBS-EcoMedia.]