It’s Not Easy Buying Green

The good news is that more and more people want to reduce their ecological footprint- the impact that we all have on this fragile and interconnected planet. The bad news is that some companies care much more about looking green than being green. Companies have learned that people care about the environment and are willing to pay for green goods and services. Advertisers and marketing folks are busy painting the world green. Some of this is real and useful and some of this can be silly or even deceptive. Fortunately consumer groups and the Federal Trade Commission have started to pay attention to corporate claims of sustainability. We have a long way to go as we try to sort this out, but the work has begun.

The Federal Trade Commission hosted a public workshop at the end of April, to examine developments in green packaging claims and consumer perception of such claims. This workshop is one component of the Commission’s regulatory review of the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (16 CFR Part 260), which the FTC announced in a Federal Register Notice on November 26, 2007.

The FTC released a report recently providing guidance to those looking to “sort out” environmental claims. Part of it stated: “Recycled” products are made from items recovered or separated from the “waste stream” that are melted down or ground up into raw materials and then used to make new products. Or they may be products that are used, rebuilt, reconditioned, or remanufactured. If a product is labeled “recycled” because it contains used, rebuilt, reconditioned, or remanufactured parts, the label must say so — unless it’s obvious to the consumer. For example, a used auto parts store may sell used automobile parts that have been salvaged from other cars and label them “recycled” without any other description because it’s plain that they are used parts. But an office copier that is labeled “recycled” because it was rebuilt, reconditioned or remanufactured — and then labeled recycled — must state that the recycled content came from rebuilt, reconditioned or remanufactured parts. That’s because it may not be obvious that it contains used parts.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Vice President Scot Case said, “There should be a big caution to consumers: Don’t base your purchasing decision on some green dot unless you know what that green dot really means.” (“Green product seals are gray area,” April 19


So what does the public really think? According to a recent study from Cone LLC and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship (, almost half of those surveyed (48%) think "green" products are actually beneficial for the earth, while a distinctly smaller group–22%–understands that such goods are simply less harmful than competing products. Seventy-six percent of respondents believe environmental marketing should be regulated by the government. More findings:

  • 45 percent believe companies are accurately communicating information about their impact on the environment
  • 61 percent say they understand the environmental terms companies use in their advertising

Another important issue is the link between “green” products and their effect on the environment. According to the Cone poll, 74 percent of Americans say providing a clear connection between the product/service and the environmental issue (i.e., a hybrid car and lower emissions) influences their purchasing decisions.

When a company makes claims that don’t hold up, it embarrasses companies and disillusions consumers, according to Mike Lawrence, executive vice president of corporate responsibility for Cone LLC. "Activists are closely monitoring green claims and can quickly share information online about the actual environmental impact of a product. The result can be accusations that a company is engaging in ‘greenwashing’ and is misleading the public."

In a press release that highlights the report, Bradley Googins executive director of The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, said, "The fact that Americans are so primed to trust companies may suggest the lack of control they feel around complex environmental issues, so it is not surprising that they also seek a third-party gatekeeper to help ensure the messages they see and hear are accurate … Maintaining the trust of consumers needs to be a top priority for companies."

Concerns about greenwashing and misleading labels has led to the creation of site such as Launched on Earth Day 2005 by Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, GreenChoices is a Web-based initiative to inform, engage, and empower consumers about environmentally-friendly products and practices.

The site offers a Green Labels Center, which helps consumers discover what the labels on their favorite products really mean. Using the search tool, consumers can get an expert evaluation of labels on food, wood, personal products and household cleaners. People can search by product, category, or certifier, and easily compare labels using the site’s “report cards.” 

For more on what makes good labeling, see Consumer Reports’ Eco-lables center:

The planet’s population is still growing. On April 26 the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clock showed a U.S. population of 304,002,727 and a world population of 6,665,486,945. There are more of us than ever and many of us are consuming more stuff today than we did yesterday.

According to World Bank data from 2003, people in the world’s high-income countries account for 81.5% of total private consumption expenditures, while people in the world’s low-income countries account for just 3.6%. Worldwatch Institute data show that “global private consumption expenditures—the amount spent on goods and services at the household level—topp
ed $20 trillion in 2000, a four-fold increase over 1960.”

Rapidly developing nations like China and India are joining the US in our non-sustainable patterns of consumption. Economic growth will increasingly depend on our ability to reuse resources and develop sustainably. Buying green may be mainly symbolic now, but we are learning how to make, advertise and buy goods that have less impact on the environment. That is a necessary, if perhaps sometimes frustrating, first step.


It’s Not Easy Buying Green