-Submitted by Wendi Latko, Director of Sustainable Services, Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability

Every day I receive several newsletters in my inbox, which are basically compilations and commentary on environmental news.  The fact that there even needs to be digests of this information is a testament to how widespread the attention to the environment is these days.  But how can any of us know what to believe?

A survey released by Gfk Custom Research North America in September showed a definite trend with more respondents saying businesses are fulfilling their responsibility to the environment, and fewer saying that business’ environmental claims are not accurate. The absolute scores are still sobering though – 63% feel businesses are not fulfilling their responsibility, and 39% say business’ claims are not accurate.

Environmental claims are a bit different from so many other advertising claims. If a manufacturer makes a claim regarding price, the consumer can do the math to verify it. If a brand of yogurt or mac & cheese promises to “taste better than the leading brand,” for a few dollars you can decide for yourself. But what about those energy labels on the appliances you buy? Or claims that goods are “sustainably sourced” or “eco-friendly” or, worst of all, “green?”

The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines that specify what can and can’t be said about the environmental attributes of a product.  These “Green Guides” outline general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims and then provide guidance on specific green claims, such as biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content, and ozone safe.  Basically, any claim made about a product needs to be specific and substantiated.  Generalized claims such as “eco-friendly” or “green” are particularly problematic, unless the justification for those claims is prominently displayed.  This poses a challenge for packaging designers and marketers – no one wants to use footnotes on the label of their product!

Woman with a laptop in a garden

Image Credit - Getty Images

ENERGY STAR is perhaps the best known example of an environmental label.  While most of us would claim familiarity with the program, it wasn’t until I became involved with Xerox’s product stewardship that I realized how stringent the process is.  For example, printing equipment is tested according to a well-defined protocol that is intended to roughly mimic a typical workday.  This process accounts for the differences in power consumption and time spent in different modes (run, standby, sleep).  Also, I never realized that the ENERGY STAR standards are always changing.  A product that achieved ENERGY STAR in 2008 would quite likely not meet today’s standards, and products launched today may not meet the standards in place a few years from now.  Finally, earlier this year new requirements went into effect requiring third party validation of energy testing data.

Environmental impact is complex – and more often than not, there are tradeoffs associated with the choices.  Energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs contain mercury.  Hybrid car battery packs need to be managed at the end of their useful life.  Products become smaller and lighter weight, but don’t last as long.  Organic foods use fewer chemicals, but have a lower crop yield and therefore, less food to feed society.  Electronic devices replace paper documents, but require electricity to run and ultimately end up as electronic waste.  How can a consumer be sure that a company’s claims, even if true, are reflecting the whole story?

Consider just a few of the items that have made the news in the past few weeks:

These examples just give a glimpse into the detail that surrounds environmental requirements for companies. It may lead you to think twice about what you hear when it comes to products claiming to be “green.”

In the end, businesses work very hard to meet the requirements set by ENERGY STAR, EPEAT, Blue Angel and others  to provide more sustainable products to their customers and help lessen our impact on the environment.

Have you ever questioned a product claiming to be “green” or “eco-friendly?”