Do Green Claims Support Consumer Action

In 2008, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began a series of public workshops to review its “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.” Initial sessions focused on carbon offsets, product packaging (for which Cone shared findings from its 2008 Green Gap Survey) and buildings and textiles. But since then, momentum seemed to slow.

Until this week, that is, when rhetoric turned to action as the FTC cracked down on Kmart and two other companies for making deceptive biodegradability claims. Kmart claimed that its American Fare private label brand of paper plates was biodegradable. The FTC challenged the retailer not because it questioned whether the paper plates actually decompose, but instead because of the way Americans typically dispose of their trash- in landfills where the plates have little hope of degrading. In essence, the FTC is indicating that it is not just about the inherent accuracy of the claim, but whether consumers can realistically act upon it.

At the same time, the House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection held a hearing entitled “It’s Too Easy Being Green.” In testimony, James Kohm of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection explained:

“Competition based on green claims drives businesses to greater innovation, which ultimately benefits consumers by increasing the availability of the types of green products and services they desire. For the marketplace to thrive, however, companies must compete on the basis of legitimate advertising claims and consumers must be able to rely on those claims.”

Kmart may be under fire today, but as the FTC continues to investigate instances of greenwashing, we can expect that more companies will follow.


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