'Greenwashing' Draws Customers With Questionable Claims, but Practice Not Illegal

Photo: Are products that claim to be environmentally friendly really green?ABC News Photo Illustration
The government is cracking down on some companies who inaccurately claim their products are environmentally friendly.

In the past five years, there's been an explosion of products marketed as "green" and good for the environment.

And last year, Americans spent a great deal of money on them. But now, the government has cracked down on some companies, saying their green claims aren't accurate.

Critics call the marketing practice "greenwashing" -- a way to attract customers by labeling products as eco-friendly when they may not be. The problem is that there is no legal definition of what "green" is, so companies can make all sorts of claims without providing proof.

VIDEO: Elisabeth Leamy takes a closer look at eco-friendly products.Play
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"Environmentally- friendly," "green" and "natural" are all labels with no legal meaning.

"It infuriates me," said Leigh Stringer, an environmental architect, a mother and author of "The Green Workplace."

Stringer tries to live green, especially because she has a 3-year-old daughter, she said. Greenwashed products make her angry.

"When I find that they haven't done the work -- they just slapped a green label on something -- and haven't really shown me that they've done the due diligence. ... I find it very frustrating," she said.

Some Companies Halted Claims Following FTC Complaint

The Federal Trade Commission recently filed complaints about four textiles marketed as natural bamboo, which they're not.

"In fact, the fiber that's used in each of these is rayon," Jim Kohm of the FTC told "Good Morning America."

The FTC also recently brought cases against three products labeled biodegradable, when in reality they're unlikely to break down. Five of the seven companies involved in these cases have agreed to stop making the claims in question, without admitting fault.

"The reason the FTC is on the beat is we want to make sure consumers get what they're paying for," Kohm said.

"GMA" Explores Five Confusing Claims

"GMA" asked Scot Case of TerraChoice, a company that certifies green products for the Canadian government, to point out some packages that make confusing green claims.

Greenwashing category No. 1: Hyping what has been taken out of a product. One shaving cream product did that.

"The seal says no CFCs," Case said. "No chlorofluorocarbons. And what's interesting to me is that CFCs were actually banned in 1978. So they are promoting something that would be illegal if they were in there."

Greenwashing category No. 2: Not providing proof.

Speaking about a brand of drinking glasses bearing the chasing arrows symbol, Case said, "It could be a wonderful product, but they haven't told me how much recycled content. What's the source of that recycled content?"

Environmental trade-offs are category No. 3.

Case and "Good Morning America" examined a Poland Spring water bottle that's marketed as having an eco-shape.

"It actually does use 30 percent less plastic than other bottles. … But you still have this sin of the hidden trade-off. Given that you are shipping this product back and forth across the country, when you could in fact just get it out of your tap," Case added.

Poland Spring responds that most people drink bottled water when they're out and don't have access to their tap, and said its eco-shape bottle is better than any other disposable bottle or cup.

Greenwashing category No. 4: Self-made seals, from companies that put their own stamps on their packages instead of one awarded by a neutral third party.

Speaking of a brand of cleaner that claimed to be "earth friendly," Case said: "Ah, of course, the green leaf. What's the point? What does it mean? You've got to give me as a consumer some additional information so I can make an intelligent choice."

Claims Aren't Illegal

And finally, greenwashing category No. 5: Products that are not up to environmental standards. Kenmore advertised a refrigerator as Energy Star compliant but then acknowledged it was not.

"So I spent $2,500 on an appliance, thinking it was going to help reduce my electricity cost and reduce my global warming footprint, and it doesn't even come close," Case said.

None of the claims for these products' are illegal, because there is no legal standard. Until there is, you'll have to decide whether it's worth spending your green on products marketed as green.

Consumers Have Options

So what are consumers to do?

There are two respected green certifications that you can look for.

One is EcoLogo, which is owned by the Canadian government and administered by TerraChoice, where Scot Case works.

The other is Green Seal, awarded by a nonprofit organization.

They consider the entire environmental cycle and perform testing and inspections before certifying a product as green.

But it's tough, because there are lots of companies out there making good green products that aren't certified because the certification process is too expensive or so new that they don't feel consumers value it yet.

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