May 17, 2010

Want to know more about Greenwashing?

Kevin and Tim were interviewed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on an article discussing the next steps the FTC may take to address the abundance of greenwashing currently in the marketplace.  The article as well as a picture of Tim and Kevin was featured on the front page of the business section on 5/16.

To read the full article click here.

FTC Could rewrite marketing guidelines

written by Matt Hathaway

When research chemist Kevin Tibbs wants to demonstrate the safety of his St. Louis company's home-cleaning products in person, he opens his mouth wide and sprays some inside.

On store shelves, Tibbs and his partner, Tim Barklage, rely on packaging to convince consumers their Better Life line of cleaning products is safe and eco-friendly.

The problem, they say, is that the marketplace for "green" kitchen, glass and floor cleaners is cluttered with products making dubious environmental claims.

That's why the entrepreneurs favor something few business owners would support — federal regulation. Specifically, they want the government to stop companies from making bogus environmental claims.

"We know that, when a crackdown on green products eventually happens, it's going to help us," Tibbs said.

After nearly a decade of silence about exaggerated environmental claims by product marketers, that federal crackdown could be in the works. The Federal Trade Commission is rewriting its guidelines on how companies can market their goods to environmentally conscious consumers.

The FTC's current "Green Guides," as the commission's "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims" are known, date to 1992, and they haven't been revised since 1998. The current Green Guides explain how companies ought to use terms like "recycled," "recyclable" and "biodegradable," but many other marketing phrases aren't defined by the guides, the commission warned Congress last year.

An FTC spokesman said he couldn't say when the new guides will be made public, other than sometime this year.

The guides won't have the force of law; they will be more like a heads up to the industry on how companies can avoid lawsuits that, under President Barack Obama's administration, the FTC seems more eager to file.

From 2001 through 2008, the FTC took no enforcement actions against marketers and manufacturers accused of making false environmental claims to consumers. That emboldened the industry to exaggerate environmental claims, said Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, a consulting firm for product marketers.

Last year, TerraChoice studied 2,219 consumer products that made positive claims about their effect on the environment. The consulting firm found that 98 percent of the products were guilty of "green-washing" — or misleading consumers about a product's ecological effects or a company's environmental practices.

But Case said there seems to be a slight shift toward more honest marketing, thanks to fears of a consumer backlash and stepped-up enforcement by the FTC.

Last year, the commission filed several challenges to what it saw as false "green" claims. The commission accused makers of disposable wipes and plates of falsely claiming those products were biodegradable, even though they probably wouldn't degrade if trashed in a landfill.

And a recent government crusade against bamboo textiles shows just how mainstream green products have become. The FTC sued marketers of bamboo-derived rayon for making false environmental claims about the material, and the commission threatened 78 retailers — including big chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and Macy's — that they would be sued if they didn't correct environmental claims on the labeling and advertising for bamboo-derived rayon.

Although there are no firm numbers on how much consumers spend on green products and services, some estimates top $200 billion annually. Yet there are few rules governing what marketers can say.

That's because terms like natural, sustainable and green are largely meaningless. Products billed as "eco-friendly" might be harmful to the environment but slightly less so than some of the competition. When it comes to packaging, muted color palettes or pictures of flowers and unspoiled prairies might suggest Mother Nature's blessing — even if the product is made from chemicals that poison the environment.

Case said green-washing was most common in the marketing of children's toys, baby products, cosmetics and cleaning products, like those that compete with Better Life.

Those supposedly eco-friendly cleaning products seldom list their ingredients, as Better Life does, said Barklage, who heads up the company's sales and marketing. If challenged, those companies sometimes insist their products are green even if they contain toxic chemicals.

"I've actually heard people in the industry say, 'Our products are natural: Petroleum occurs naturally, so petrochemicals are natural products.' That's what we're up against," he said. "There's almost no regulation, and a little would go a long way."

Or, it could go too far, warned Ronald Urbach, a lawyer for advertising trade groups and a partner at the New York firm Davis & Gilbert.

Urbach said that the marketplace already is moving toward more honest green marketing, and that more regulations might be the answer to a problem that doesn't exist.

"People are sometimes smarter than the government makes them out to be," he said. "I don't think there is nearly as much duping as some believe."