TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which advises companies on green product positioning, reviewed claims companies made about 1,018 widely sold goods. Using metrics from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), TerraChoice concluded that all but one of the claims were false or could be misleading. “If truly green products have a hard time differentiating themselves from the fake ones, then this whole notion of a green market will fall apart,” says Scot Case, vice-president at TerraChoice.

image - Eco-friendly Choices are Corrupted by the Sins of "Greenwashing"

TerraChoice broke the claims into various offenses. The “Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off” includes electronics makers who trumpet the energy efficiency of their computers, printers, and other gizmos without mentioning they’re made of toxic metals. The “Sin of No Proof” pertains to producers of facial tissues and paper towels who boast about using recycled fiber but provide no certification on their packaging or Web sites. Then there’s the “Sin of Irrelevance.” That’s about declaring that your shaving gel or window cleaner is “free of chlorofluorocarbons.” Most countries banned such chemicals 30 years ago.

The FTC issued its first Green Guides in 1992 to discourage manufacturers from slapping words like “recyclable” willy-nilly on products that clearly weren’t. Packages of pesticides were getting labeled “practically nontoxic.” Plastic diapers that could take 500 years to break down in a landfill were touted as biodegradable. So the guides were drawn up, and companies ranging from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) to Mr. Coffee (JAH) and Orkin (ROL) got their wrists slapped by the FTC. But in recent years, there has been little enforcement, even as innovations such as renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets proliferated.

A prime example of eco-spin comes from Nestlé (NSRGY) which named its redesigned plastic bottle for Poland Spring water Eco-Shape, even though the bottles are destined to rattle around at the dump just like all the others. The container is made with 30% less plastic than other like-sized bottles, so it has “a lighter environmental footprint,” says Heidi Paul, a vice-president at Nestlé Waters North America. But that doesn’t ease the concerns of Joel Makower, executive editor at environmental trend-watcher GreenBiz.com. “There’s a lot going on that just isn’t right,” he says.

The Sustainable Furniture Council (SFC) plans to address greenwashing in the furniture industry through it’s education efforts and offer guidelines to manufactureres and consumers for what constitutes sustainable, green eco-friendly furniture.

Urban Woods is a founding member of the Sustainable Furniture Council.

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