Laura Smith, legal director for Truth in Advertising, a nonprofit advertising watchdog organization, Madison, Connecticut. TINA.org
Automakers that trumpet their environmentally friendly vehicles—but cheat on emissions tests. Plastic packaging that features the word “recyclable”—even though most consumers can’t realistically recycle it. “Green” household cleaners—that contain harmful ingredients. Companies want to appear environmentally friendly, but some claims are exaggerated or omit details, a strategy known as “greenwashing.”
The Federal Trade Commission is updating its guidelines for environment-related marketing claims, but it’s not clear when new guidelines might take effect or whether they will make greenwashing less common. In the meantime, there are things you can do to spot some—though not all—greenwashing…
Check the number on “recyclable” plastics. If a plastic product or plastic packaging is labeled “recyclable,” search the item for a small number identifying the type of plastic used—this number will be surrounded by a triangle of arrows. Many types of plastic that are recyclable in theory are rarely recycled because facilities for doing so don’t exist in most areas and/or those plastics cannot be recycled economically. Result: They end up in landfills or incinerators. The only plastics that are likely to be recycled are those marked 1 (PETE/PET) or 2 (HDPE), according to research conducted in 2020.
Look for details about “compostable” claims. When the word “compostable” is on packaging, you might assume that you can dispose of the item in a backyard compost bin. But some compostable products are compostable only in commercial facilities, which are not available in many parts of the US. There sometimes is a small-print disclaimer on “compostable” products explaining how they can be composted—read the fine print and do your research.
Enter the company or product name and the word “greenwashing” into a search engine. If there are concerns about the legitimacy of a company’s environmental claims, some publication or website likely has written something about it. While these write-ups cannot always be taken at face value, you can weigh both the claims and concerns before making purchases.