Archive for Greenwashing

CBS Under Fire for its EcoAd Program

This week, the Center for Environmental Health,, Friends of the Earth, and Rainforest Action Network sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging it to open an investigation of CBS-Ecomedia’s “EcoAd” program.


Under the EcoAd program, which was launched earlier this year, advertisements feature the following logo, described as “a green stamp of approval”:



Display of the logo in connection with the advertisements was supposed to “deliver added value beyond traditional advertising”, presumably in increased goodwill and recognition for helping to protect the environment.  A portion of the moneys spent by advertisers in the program are to go towards funding environmental and clean energy projects which have been vetted by municipalities and public entities.   Initial advertisers included Chevrolet, Safeway, O Organics, SunPower Corp., Boston Scientific, PG&E, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center,  Pacific Coast Termite, Port of Los Angeles, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Avidia Bank.


So, what’s the problem?


Well, according to the complainants, CBS does not vet the advertisers for environmental responsibility and the only requirement to have the EcoAd seal affixed to one’s advertising is the payment of money.  But, according to the complaint, viewers seeing the spots will get the false impression that the advertisers have met some standard of environmental friendliness in order to qualify for the mark. In short, the complainants seem to feel that the program allows advertisers to simply purchase green goodwill, like a Church indulgence, without necessarily being green.  As Jennifer Kaplan, site director for Ecopreneurist stated, “”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. ”


The complainants allege that EcoAd constitutes an unsubstantiated environmental seal, violates the Green Guides, and is an unfair or deceptive act that provides CBS with an unfair competitive advantage over other advertising outlets. However, they acknowledge that, if revised, the program has the potential to offer great benefits to local environmental and energy savings projects. In terms of revisions, the complainants suggest: 1) the inclusion of a disclaimer; 2) the development of criteria for evaluating whether a product or service can be an EcoAd; and 3) oversight by an independent third-party.


CBS responds that the program is not a green certification or seal of approval, and that it has committed to running explanatory ads about the program in relevant markets. In an e-mailed response, the company stated “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.”


More on this case as it develops.





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FTC Proposes Revisions to the Green Guides

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission proposed revisions to the guidance that it gives marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims, also known as “greenwashing”. The proposed changes, which were approved for public consideration by a 5-0 vote, are designed to update the FTC’s “Green Guides” and make them easier for companies to understand and use, as well as to strengthen the FTC’s guidance on those marketing claims that are already addressed in the current Guides and to provide new guidance on marketing claims that were not common when the Guides were last reviewed.

The proposed changes were developed using information collected from three public workshops, public comments, and a study of how consumers understand certain environmental claims. The FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed changes until December 10, 2010, after which it will decide which changes to make final.

The Green Guides were first issued in 1992 to help marketers ensure that the claims they are making are true and substantiated. The Guides were revised in 1996 and 1998. The guidance they provide includes: 1) general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims; 2) how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate these claims; and 3) how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.

The revision process is part of the newly intensified effort on the part of the Federal government to crack down on greenwashing.  Here are some highlights of what is, and isn’t, in the new revisions:

  • Caution against any blanket eco-friendly, due to consumers’ tendency to assume that this means a product is greener than it really is
  • Caution against use of unqualified certifications or seals. Qualifications for green certifications should be clear, prominent, and specific.
  • New guidance concerning the use of terms like “renewable materials” and “renewable energy”
  • New guidance related to carbon offsets
  • Still no guidance on terms such as “sustainable” (whew!), “natural”, or “organic” (already regulated by the USDA)

The FTC is seeking comment on all aspects of its proposal. Examples include:

  • How should marketers qualify “made with renewable materials” claims, if at all, to avoid deception?
  • Should the FTC provide guidance concerning how long consumers think it will take a liquid substance to completely degrade?
  • How do consumers understand “carbon offset” and “carbon neutral” claims? Is there any evidence of consumer confusion concerning the use of these claims?

Click here to download a copy of the full report. Click here for an executive summary.


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The Story of the Recycling Symbol

The best-known green logo isn’t even a trademark, at least not anymore.

In 1970, around the same time as the first Earth Day celebration, the Container Corporation of America sponsored a design contest designed to raise awareness of environmentalism.  The winner was Gary Anderson, then a student at USC. His winning entry was the now-familiar universal recycling symbol:

 Recycling symbol.svg

The design was intended to be evocative of the infinity symbol (∞) and reflects the endless cycle of materials in our environment. An adapted  form of it is also used now as part of the SPI resin identification coding system to identify different plastic types for recycling purposes.  You’ve probably had a drink today out of something bearing one of these:


Container Corporation of America filed an application for trademark protection of the recycling symbol, but ultimately abandoned the application. Today, the symbol is widely used and in the public domain. Does that mean you can use the symbol in advertising any way you like? Well, no. If the use would be misleading or deceptive to consumers (for example, if the product really wasn’t recycled or recyclable), you could run afoul of the false advertising laws. We will discuss this in more depth in future articles.

Other countries use different variants of the symbol. The one below is used in Taiwan. Just for fun, how many arrows can you find?

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Greenwashing Sins, Part I: Hidden Trade-Offs

Demand for environmentally-desirable goods and services is at an all-time high. In keeping with this, more and more businesses and products are going green. Between 2006 and 2008, the total volume of green-themed advertising nearly tripled, and between 2007 and 2008, the amount of products on store shelves claiming to be green nearly doubled.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When statistics are compiled from 2008 forward, it’s reasonable to expect to see green marketing to have increased by a whole order of magnitude.

In general, this trend is a good thing. It reflects increased awareness and motivation on the part of consumers to make responsible choices, and on the part of businesses to serve consumers’ demand and to do the right thing. However, this green revolution has a darker side. Some goods and services are green in name only. This phenomenon is called greenwashing.

Today we continue our multi-part series on this topic by discussing the first “sin” of greenwashing, as dubbed by TerraChoice in its ground-breaking report on the subject.

Sin #1 : The Hidden Trade-Off

This sin is all about misdirection: emphasize the good and hide the bad. Consumers are exposed to a green marketing claim that focuses on a very carefully set of positive attributes, while remaining silent on the downsides that, if known, would make the eco-friendliness of the product questionable. Imagine a 100% recycled cardboard. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But suppose you learned that it is manufactured by a process that produces an excessive amount of greenhouse gases? Not so great anymore, is it? An eco-friendly bamboo fabric is appealing, but it loses its luster if its made with toxic chemicals that cause a disposal problem. According to the TerraChoice study, 57% of green marketing claims commit this sin.

Government is taking an increasingly active role in policing green marketing claims. But consumers can also help protect themselves by thinking critically as they review green labeling and paying attention as much to the label’s silence on an issue as to the features it touts. Also, consumers should rely on reputable certification marks to help guide them in avoiding hidden trade-offs.


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Certification Marks 101

A certification mark is any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce with the owner’s permission by someone other than its owner, to certify regional or other geographic origin, material, mode of manufacture, quality, accuracy, or other characteristics of someone’s goods or services, or that the work or labor on the goods or services was performed by members of a union or other organization. Think the Good Housekeeping seal.

Here are some examples of “green” certification marks:

Mark ImageMark ImageMark Image

But beware – It’s a common marketing tactic to affix trademarks to products that have the “look and feel” of a certification mark, but in fact are just the seller’s own mark with self-awarded accolades. Also, even with true certification marks, these marks are only as good as the reputation they have for the objectivity and rigor with which the certifying party applies its standards.

The legislative authority for certification marks in the U.S. comes from U.S. Code section 15 U.S.C. §1054.

Collective marks and certification marks registrable

Subject to the provisions relating to the registration of trademarks, so far as they are applicable, collective and certification marks, including indications of regional origin, shall be registrable under this Act, in the same manner and with the same effect as are trademarks, by persons, and nations, States, municipalities, and the like, exercising legitimate control over the use of the marks sought to be registered, even though not possessing an industrial or commercial establishment, and when registered they shall be entitled to the protection provided herein in the case of trademarks, except in the case of certification marks when used so as to represent falsely that the owner or a user thereof makes or sells the goods or performs the services on or in connection with which such mark is used. Applications and procedure under this section shall conform as nearly as practicable to those prescribed for the registration of trademarks.

Applications for new green certifications are on the rise at the Trademark Office. To follow the trends in the volume of green certification, tune in to our weekly round-up of green marks.

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