It's nice to come across references to ethical-consumer savvy in unexpected places.
Someone recently gave me a story from the San Francisco Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, warning California companies that if they portray their products as eco-friendly or not harmful to the earth, they must be prepared to verify those claims, on demand, to any member of the public who asks. Although the relevant statute has so far not been interpreted by the courts, "[t]his may change, as a rising tide of consumer disgust with 'greenwashing' ... makes lawsuits for unfair competition or false advertising increasingly likely," writes litigator Robert S. Hule.
Yes, California has an environmental marketing statute. It's part of the state's law on false advertising (California Business & Professions Code Section 17580), and it both prohibits deceptive claims and requires record-keeping and disclosure measures for companies that make environmental claims.
What's a deceptive claim? Ah, just refer (as the law does) to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims," a.k.a. the Green Guides, which spell out numerous types of chicanery and provide lots of helpful examples. Like this one, on the need to distinguish between product and packaging:
A box of aluminum foil is labeled with the claim "recyclable," without further elaboration. Unless the type of product, surrounding language, or other context of the phrase establishes whether the claim refers to the foil or the box, the claim is deceptive if any part of either the box or the foil, other than minor, incidental components, cannot be recycled.
Or this one, which illustrates overstatement of environmental benefit:
A package of paper coffee filters is labeled "These filters were made with a chlorine-free bleaching process." The filters are bleached with a process that releases into the environment a reduced, but still significant, amount of the same harmful byproducts associated with chlorine bleaching. The claim is likely to overstate the product's benefits because it is likely to be interpreted by consumers to mean that the product's manufacture does not cause any of the environmental risks posed by chlorine bleaching.
Now, is it just me, or do you also feel like you encounter such deceptive claims all the time?
But I digress... The point is, it's heartening to see the legal community telling the business community to be truthful, or else face the wrath of enlightened consumers.
Broad claims are the most vulnerable to lawsuits, the article states. In general, companies would be wise to avoid using far-reaching phrases like "environmentally friendly" and instead to "state in the advertisement or on the label exactly what environmental benefit the product has." Oh, and be prepared to substantiate any claims with reliable documentation when asked.
That's an approach I can get behind.