Beware of falsely ‘green’ advertising

Green products touting environmental features such as “recyclable,” “biodegradable” and “eco-friendly” seem to be everywhere from grocery stores to card shops to car dealers.

Every other advertisement seems to show a windmill, a field of grass, or other green scene seeking to give a product a green image.

But along with the rise in “green” marketing claims has come an increase in “greenwashing” — false or misleading green claims, said Scot Case, president of Terra Choice Environmental Marketing Inc. in Philadelphia.

When it comes to green products, buyers need to do their homework, and check out a company’s environmental track record, Case said. He advises looking for products certified by a qualified and independent third party such as EcoLogo or GreenSeal.

In 2007, his firm conducted a survey of 1,018 consumer products making 1,753 environmental claims. All but one of the claims were either false or misleading, Case said.

For example:

— A dishwasher detergent boasts “100 percent recycled paper” packaging, and yet the container is plastic.

— A caulking product claimed to be “Energy Star” certified, but Energy Star doesn’t certify such products.

Case said the vast majority of companies are not following marketing guidelines provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission and Consumers Union.

“The gist of the guidelines is that folks should be making specific, accurate environmental claims and should have substantial proof to back up the claims,” Case said. “It is a very simple litmus test that most companies are failing miserably.”

Kim Sheehan, a University of Oregon associate professor of advertising, said energy and automotive companies are among the worst offenders, with

advertising suggesting they are greener than they really are.

When an automaker touts the gas mileage its SUV gets by comparing it with other SUVs, “this is a false comparison,” she said “There are many cars that would give you better gas mileage that are not SUVs. You are talking about a group of cars that get horrible gas mileage.”

The University of Oregon, in conjunction with Austin, Texas-based EnviroMedia, created a “Greenwashing Index” Web site for consumers to rate green advertising. Since January 2007, 124 ads have been reviewed.

Still, there are no shortcuts for consumers to protect themselves from products with bogus green advertising.

Sheehan said she doesn’t trust green certifications and endorsements because they’re easy to obtain, and the product could also be changed for the worse later.

“There’s nothing to make it easier,” Sheehan said. “People have to make a little effort on their own.”