Kmart’s Green Gets the Red Light

The other day I was chatting with a reporter who was doing a story on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) latest efforts to crack down on companies that make bogus “green” claims about their products. Specifically, the FTC is going after Kmart for claiming that its American Fare private label brand of paper plates is biodegradable. The FTC challenged Kmart, not because it questioned whether the paper plates actually decompose. Instead the complaint was issued because of the way Americans typically dispose of their trash.

Enter TerraChoice’s list of greenwashing sins. The FTC called Kmart out because it says the biodegradable claim is irrelevant, sin number five of seven common offenses. 

At issue is the mindset of consumers and whether they assume the paper plates will actually decompose after use. When the plates are tossed in the trash, as the FTC believes they will be, they will likely be sent to landfills and buried in deep holes where they won’t see the light of day. Without exposure to the elements of nature, they can’t possibly decompose in a reasonable period of time.

I have to wonder what Kmart was thinking. Perhaps Kmart sees a future when curbside pick-up of household organic compostable waste is the norm. This service already exists in a handful of municipalities in the U.S. Along with garbage and recycling pick-up, some residents are getting their yard, food and biodegradable paper waste also collected and sent to compost facilities where these materials are turned into soil enrichments for gardens.

But maybe Kmart was simply doing what other brands do when they claim their products are “eco-friendly.” According to TerraChoice’s 2009 research, 98% of the green product claims being made are vague, unsubstantiated, conceal any unpleasant trade-offs, use bogus certification labels or are just plain fibs. All of this has consumers confused and often misinterpreting the claims that companies are making, Cone found in its 2008 Green Gap Survey.

Kmart may be the victim today. But as the FTC continues to investigate instances of greenwashing, we can expect that more brands will receive the same treatment. It may take some time to bring order to the green marketplace so consumers can actually trust the products they purchase. Until then, I suggest that consumers beware!