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Published on April 22nd, 2019

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Earth Day 2019: 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 2019 that have been accused of not being as environmentally friendly as marketed:

+ 1. Volkswagen/BMW/Chevy/Ford/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.

Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating scandal in which it admitted to rigging 11 million of its own “clean diesels” with devices designed to cheat emissions may have garnered the most headlines, but several car manufacturers have faced similar allegations in recent years, including BMW, Chevrolet, Ford and Mercedes-Benz. In the case of Mercedes-Benz, class-action plaintiffs alleged 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.

Many of these clean diesel lawsuits continue to make their way through the courts. We’ll be keeping tabs on them to see, among other things, if any result in the kind of settlement that the FTC reached with Volkswagen, which agreed to refund eco-minded consumers more than $11 billion to settle the agency’s allegations.

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

+ 2. Nestle (‘sustainably sourced cocoa beans’)

A 2019 class-action lawsuit against Nestle alleges the food giant’s “sustainably sourced cocoa beans” are nothing of the sort. Not when production of the key ingredient in the company’s chocolate products — including its Butterfinger and Baby Ruth bars, Nesquik chocolate milk, Toll House chocolate chips and hot cocoa mix (seen above) — is helping drive massive deforestation in West Africa. The suit also claims the cocoa comes from farms that use child and slave labor, which Nestle (sort of) responds to here.

+ 3. Nest Labs (programmable thermostats)

Programmable or smart thermostats — marketed to help consumers save energy (and, by extension, the planet) — have been the subject of multiple inquiries by the National Advertising Division since 2013. The heat has been turned up on Nest Labs in particular, thanks in part to challenges to the company’s advertising by Honeywell, maker of competing programmable thermostats. NAD has found some of Nest Labs’ claims supported, while others, including one that its Airwave technology “cuts AC runtime up to 30%,” not so much.

+ 4. Kauai Coffee (compostable coffee pods)

Kauai Coffee claimed its “100% compostable” coffee pods took the guilt out of single serve.

“Now you can enjoy the great taste and convenience of single-serve coffee without worrying about the environmental impact,” the Hawaiian roaster said on its website. “Our certified 100% compostable pod is compatible with all K-Cup brewers and is designed to go back to the land — not the landfill.”

But there was a catch, or as NAD put it, a “significant limitation” to Kauai’s compostable coffee pods that was not clearly disclosed to consumers. The caveat? The capsules have only been certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), an environmental advocacy group, to decompose at “industrial facilities” and not in the compost pile in your backyard. And those industrial facilities are few and far between.

+ 5. Charmin Freshmates (flushable wipes)

You may not want to bet on this flush.

Moist towelettes like Charmin Freshmates that are marketed as “flushable” claim to be safe for sewer and septic systems, and promise not to gum up the works. But some wastewater officials and consumers say that claim doesn’t hold water (and as a result is holding up water).

To settle a class-action lawsuit, Procter & Gamble, maker of Charmin Freshmates, among other things agreed to add a disclaimer that the products should only be used in “well-maintained plumbing systems.”

+ 6. 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.

+ 7. 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.

+ 8. 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.

+ 9. 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 2016 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.

+ 10. 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 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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