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Published on April 22nd, 2016

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Earth Day 2016: Seven Companies Accused of Greenwashing

A growing number of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for products with a sustainability message. But when something sounds better for the environment than it actually is, that, my fellow earthlings, is called greenwashing. Here’s a roundup of companies and their products consumers should be mindful of this Earth Day 2016 that have been accused of not being as environmentally friendly as marketed:

+ 1. Volkswagen/Mercedes-Benz (‘clean diesel’ autos)

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There’s nothing clean about diesel engines that spew pollutants at levels way over the legal limit. But that seems to be the scandal of the day in the automotive industry.

Multiple class-action lawsuits filed in February against Mercedes-Benz allege that the luxury carmaker’s BlueTEC vehicles, which are marketed as “clean diesel” and “Earth friendly,” release nitrogen oxides at levels more than 65 times higher than what the EPA allows.

That, of course, follows Volkswagen’s admission last fall that it rigged 11 million of its own “clean diesels” with devices designed to cheat emissions. In March, the FTC became the third federal agency to get involved in the VW emissions scam, filing a false advertising lawsuit against Volkswagen Group of America seeking refunds for eco-minded consumers who purchased or leased an affected Volkswagen or Volkswagen-owned Audi between 2008 and 2015. The EPA, which previously issued a notice of violation against the German automaker, has also identified a Volkswagen-owned Porsche SUV equipped with the sneaky emissions-cheating software. This week, Volkswagen offered to fix or buy back nearly half a million affected vehicles as part of a settlement reached with the EPA, California officials, and consumers, USA Today reported.  

Also this week, Arizona’s attorney general jumped into the mix and filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche alleging the vehicles were fraudulently advertised, sold, and leased as “clean diesel” vehicles. Arizona is the fourth state to sue Volkswagen.

(Click here for more green car claims that have gotten companies in trouble.)

+ 2. Rainforest Alliance (Chiquita bananas, coffee, tea, etc.)

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The “Rainforest Alliance certified” sticker conveys a message of environmental and social responsibility. A Seattle-based clean water group, however, claims that that message runs counter to the on-the-ground reality at the certified farms.

“I saw aerial fumigation over schools and homes. I saw open source rivers with no protection from the chemical fumigation,” said Eric Harrison, director of Water and Sanitation Health, which sued Rainforest Alliance.

The green sticker appears on some of America’s best-selling brands including Chiquita bananas.

+ 3. Reynolds American (Natural American Spirit cigarettes)

eco friendly cigarettes

The cigarette of choice for the modern day hipster, Natural American Spirit has been advertised in magazines as an “eco friendly” smoke. Smoke and mirrors, said the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which accused Reynolds American of greenwashing. “Cigarette smoke spews more than 7,000 chemicals into the environment, including hundreds that are toxic and at least 69 that cause cancer,” the group said, adding that Mother Nature is the recipient of at least 5.6 trillion discarded cigarettes every year.

+ 4. AJM Packaging Corporation (paper plates)

green label platesAJM Packaging Corporation claimed its Nature’s Own Green Label paper plates were recyclable but did not have the competent and reliable scientific evidence to prove it. The FTC found out and, pursuant to a 1994 consent order, the company agreed to pay a $450,000 penalty. (The company also could not back up claims that products were biodegradable and/or compostable.) Under the FTC’s Green Guides, a product advertised as recyclable must be entirely recyclable.

+ 5. LEI Electronics (carbon neutral batteries)

batteries

Though they may seem outdated compared to solar-powered homes and electric cars, batteries are still very much a part of most of our lives. But one battery maker’s carbon neutral claims were the subject of a recent action by NAD. NAD said LEI Electronics failed to provide information on when the emission reductions occurred or will occur and therefore referred the matter to the FTC. The carbon neutral claims in question concerned the company’s Eco Alkaline batteries and were challenged by competitor Energizer. In response to the NAD decision, LEI Electronics said the batteries’ certification through Carbonfund.org’s Carbonfree Product Certification program complies with FTC Green Guides. The company said it will not discontinue its claim that its Eco Alkalines are carbon neutral.

+ 6. SeaWorld (killer whale shows)

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Earth is nothing without its beautiful creatures. For decades, SeaWorld has fascinated large crowds with its killer whale shows. But recently the amusement park has faced scrutiny over its alleged concealed mistreatment of the animals. Several class-action lawsuits filed in 2015 allege SeaWorld misrepresents that it “cares for,” “protects,” “nurtures,” and creates a “fun, interesting, and stimulating” environment for its killer whales when, in reality, the captive animals lead “unhealthy and despairing lives.”

Find more of our coverage on the environment here.

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The National Advertising Division, or NAD, is an investigative unit of the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation. It is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. NAD asks advertisers to substantiate or change their claims in advertisements. As part of a voluntary system of self-regulation, however, its recommendations can be ignored by the offending advertisers. In those instances, NAD refers the offender to federal consumer protection agencies.

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