by Richard M. Goodman

A recent article published by the Printing Industries of America: The Magazine on combating the effects of greenwashing on the printing industry offered general advertising guidelines drawn from other sources that are worth sharing here.

The Federal Trade Commission has had a set of  “green guides” since 1992 used to decide if an environmental claim made in the media may be deceptive.  It continually updates these guides to meet current knowledge.  The most recent updates in October 2012 incorporate the following:

A proponent cannot make a general environmental claim like “environmentally friendly” unless it includes a specific benefit which can be substantiated.  Claims of “reduced carbon footprint” likewise must refer to a specific and scientifically based and properly measured and documented study. If a company promotes a particular “seal of approval” it must describe what the criteria for obtaining such a seal are.  Terms such as non-toxic, ozone safe must also be specific  as to the nature of the benefit, whether to the environment or humans.  Recycled content refers only to materials recovered or diverted from the waste stream during manufacture or after consumer use, as post consumer waste.  Actual content must be spelled out as, for example, made from 50% post consumer waste recycled materials.  Made from renewable materials is also a claim that needs clarification.  For further details see this link.

The qualifications described above are meant to ensure that a particular advertiser does not commit one of these seven sins of greenwashing, as identified by UL Environment, a part of Underwriters Laboratories:

  1. The sin of the hidden tradeoff — highlighting one aspect but ignoring others.  For example, noting that a particular paper stock  is made from recycled fibers, but omitting that the process to make the paper  emits greater greenhouse emissions.
  2. The sin of claims without proof — for example a toilet tissue manufacturer claims greater use of post consumer wastes but has no proof.
  3. The sin of  vagueness — using the term “natural,” for example, when toxins like arsenic, lead or formaldehyde are natural substances.
  4. The sin of worshipping false labels — implying endorsement by reliable third parties when no such endorsement has ever been made.
  5. The sin of irrelevance — saying a product is “CFC free” when in fact the use of CFCs are forbidden by law.
  6. The sin of the lesser of two evils — hailing a vehicle as a fuel efficient SUV when it gets significant poorer mileage than the average vehicle.
  7. The sin of outright fibbing — claiming certifications, like “energy star,” when not true.

We should all be extra vigilant when we see any promotion of sustainability in any setting, whether in the media, on the internet, on a storefront or even in casual conversation with someone who has an axe to grind.

This topic is excerpted from Printing Industries of America: The Magazine.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at