It happens every spring, just as the crocuses and daffodils begin peeking out of the ground. I start thinking green — and not just about my garden. I also wonder how I can be a more environmentally-conscious shopper.
I’m not alone; 90 percent of Americans consider environmental impact in their purchasing decisions, according to a 2013 survey by the Boston-based Cone Communications marketing and public-relations firm.
Older Americans care even more: 95 percent of those over 65 regularly factor in environmental concerns as they shop. They’re also the most skeptical about environmental claims; the Cone survey found that only 34 percent of consumers 65 and older trust environmental messages on products.
(MORE: How to Avoid the Latest Scams)
The Government Cracks Down on "Green"
This year, my spring resolution seems more challenging than ever.
Several recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) actions call into question the integrity of environmental claims some marketers have been using to promote their goods. Labels touting a product’s biodegradability, recycling qualifications, and long life may be greatly exaggerated, if not wholly bogus. The government crackdown only reinforces the importance of being a savvy shopper so you can avoid being greenwashed.
Consider two FTC “green” actions announced last month.
In one, the agency said N.E.W. Plastics, which sells plastic lumber for outdoor decks and furniture, falsely asserted that its Evolve products were made from at least 90 percent recycled content and its Trimax products came from mostly post-consumer recycled content. In reality, the FTC said, Evolve contained, at most, 58 percent recycled product and the recycled plastic in Trimax had less than 12 percent post-consumer recycled content. The agency ordered N.E.W. Plastics to stop making the unsubstantiated claims.
In the second action, a federal court — at the request of the FTC — ordered a light-bulb manufacturer to pay $21 million for making false claims about the life expectancy of its LED bulbs. Lights of America had claimed the bulbs lasted 30,000 hours, about 15 times longer than 2,000-hour incandescents. But the FTC said none of the bulbs it tested lasted beyond a few thousand hours.
And, as they say on infomercials, there’s more!
AJM Packaging (maker of Nature’s Own Green Label and Gold Label brands) paid a $450,000 civil penalty for making misleading claims about the biodegradability of its paper plates, napkins and bags. The company marketing and selling gDiapers, promoted them as “100 % biodegradable” and “certified” biodegradable, but settled with the FTC after the agency found the diapers actually weren’t biodegradable.
Many consumers “want to buy products that are environmentally friendly, but they can’t do that if they get information that’s wrong or unsupported,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, when announcing the N.E.W. action.
I’m glad the FTC is policing environmental claims, but I also know that the agency can’t possibly monitor the myriad of eco-friendly assertions in the marketplace. That’s why we all need to be vigilant reviewing environmental claims before we buy.
Expert Advice for "Green" Shoppers
Unfortunately, as Kermit might say: It’s not easy being green. Since many of these claims require blind faith, “consumers have to fend for themselves,” says green marketing guru Joel Makower, executive editor of the research and event organization GreenBiz.com.
So what should consumers do?
(MORE: Money Can Buy Happiness If You Spend It Right)
For the answer, I reached out to one of my favorite environmentalists: Melanie Loftus, a family friend who earned her Masters in Environmental Management at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She’s a materials researcher for Healthy Building Science, a San Francisco-based environmental-testing and green-building consultant.
Loftus said I’ve touched “a real pain point” in the environmental field. Sometimes, she says, there’s a downside to even a legitimate “green” product label. “For instance, recycled content sounds like a great idea. But when the recycled content is coming from recycled tires, you’re trading a single environmental attribute — reduced raw material extraction — for another: product safety. Most people would agree that when given the choice, they would not agree to having toxic-breakdown products in their home, even if it means tires were saved from the landfill.”
To make a truly responsible decision, Loftus says, you should consider the total lifecycle assessment of the product, from extraction to manufacture to packaging, distribution, use and end of life disposal. “Consumers need to think both upstream and downstream when making a purchase. Don’t just ask ‘Where did this come from?’ But also: ‘Where will this product and its packaging go when I'm done with it?,’’ she says.
4 Ways to Buy Smart
Four more ways to buy smart when you want to buy green:
1. Make sure you understand what green claims mean. A good starting point is the FTC's Shopping Green guide, which provides definitions of commonly-used terms, such as “non-toxic,” “ozone friendly” and “biodegradable.”
2. Don’t fall for vague claims such as “green,” “environmentally-safe” or eco-friendly.” As the FTC’s guide notes: they’re “they’re too vague to be meaningful.”
3. Let independent companies that certify products for their environmental friendliness, such as Green Seal, Green Guard and Green America guide your purchasing decisions.
One of Loftus’s favorite certifications is Cradle to Cradle, because it assesses the entire life cycle of manufactured consumer products.
4. Browse the websites of environmental groups with valuable consumer guides, says Loftus. These groups include the Environmental Working Group, the Center for Environmental Health and The Ecology Center's HealthyStuff.org.
Makower says you should also look beyond environmental claims to manufacturers’ broader values, which often aren’t heavily promoted.
“There are companies doing many significant things to reduce the environmental impact but they are not talking about it,” he says. “For example, about two-thirds of General Motors assembly plants have achieved zero waste; no waste is going to a landfill. But you don’t see that on any Chevy advertising.”
For this kind of evaluation, Makower recommends GoodGuide, part of Underwriters Laboratory (which operates the Green Guard certification). It rates products and manufacturers for their health, green and socially-responsible attributes.
I can tell that it’s going to take a lot more than a green thumb this spring to meet my resolution to be more environmentally conscious. But how my garden — and world — should grow if I exert a little effort. I hope you do, too.