Feds bear down on phony ‘green’ claims

New York TimesMay 31, 2013 

— The legal watchdogs at the Federal Trade Commission have been trying to police the proliferating – and often phony – claims in recent years that products are “green” or “environmentally friendly.”

The agency recently brought cases against Macy’s, Amazon.com and Sears, Roebuck & Co. for selling clothing purportedly made of bamboo fiber that was really fashioned from rayon, a decidedly ungreen material. It cracked down on the paint manufacturers Sherwin-Williams and PPG Industries for saying that some of their products did not produce hazardous fumes. It shut down an online firm selling “tested green” certifications for products that were neither tested nor green.

“This is certainly one of our priorities,” said James A. Kohm, the associate director of the trade commission’s enforcement division. “We’ll bring a case where we need to make a point, where consumers are getting hurt the most.”

This week, two environmental groups, ForestEthics and Greenpeace, filed a complaint with the trade commission claiming that an organization that certifies paper and other forest products as “green” is a front group for the timber industry and violates the agency’s new standards for such claims. They call it a classic case of falsely claiming that a product or service is somehow more environmentally friendly or sustainable than similar products.

ForestEthics and Greenpeace charge that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, a group originally formed by big timber companies, defrauds the public by certifying that products carrying its label are harvested using only environmentally responsible practices. The environmental groups say that some of the companies using the SFI label engage in damaging forestry methods like clear-cutting, overusing pesticides and destroying habitats or rare species.

The groups claim that the certification panel, far from being independent of the industry it supposedly oversees, as required by FTC guidelines, is in fact a body created by and dominated by timber companies. SFI officials deny the allegations.

The environmental groups’ complaint aims to test the trade commission’s new “green guides,” a revised set of rules issued last year laying out the circumstances under which a company can claim that a product or process is environmentally sound. The new guidelines also update previous guidance on what constitutes a legitimate certification or endorsement. They now state explicitly that any certifying body must be independent of the industry it oversees and that any “material connection” to that industry must be disclosed.

The FTC warns manufacturers or marketers not to use broad claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly,” because these statements frequently have no scientific basis and mislead consumers. The agency also now warns against claiming that a product is biodegradable, free of harmful substances, made with renewable energy or made with all-natural materials unless these statements can be proven.

Kohm said that the agency had received the complaint about the forestry certification program but would not comment on it. It may be months or longer before it is known whether the commission has opened a formal investigation or declined to take any action.

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