Listicles

Published on April 17th, 2020

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Earth Day 2020: 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 2020 that have been accused of not being as environmentally friendly as marketed:

+ 1. Blueland (‘100% recyclable’ cleaning products)

As recently as April 2020, Blueland made it sound easy for customers concerned about the environment to sustainably dispose of its cleaning products.

At that time, an FAQ on the company’s website said that “[e]very piece of packaging” — from the shipping materials to the tablet pack wrappers to the multi-use “forever” bottles that customers use to make the cleaning solutions at home — is “100% recyclable.” No need to sort the materials; just throw it all in recycling.

Not so fast.

During the course of a recent inquiry by the National Advertising Division (NAD), which looked into the company’s environmental benefit claims following an advertising challenge by Clorox, Blueland walked back its “100% recyclable” claim to remove “100%” and to note that certain materials are compostable, as opposed to recyclable. (So instead of the recycling bin, these materials are intended for the compost heap, which is still good for the environment but perhaps not as good.) The FAQ now reads:

Our shipping materials, and our Forever Bottles (which aren’t intended for you to recycle) — are recyclable, while our cleaning tablet and hand soap wrappers along with our dish soap, dishwasher tablet, and laundry tablet pouches are compostable. Should anything happen to your Forever Bottle due to unforeseen circumstances and you’re unable to recycle it properly, we are happy to take it back free of charge and responsibly recycle it on your behalf.

These changes are reflected in a footnote in the NAD case report for the decision. The report states, among other things, that Blueland did not provide a reasonable basis for the claim that its “forever” bottles are “100% recyclable” (even if they aren’t designed to be recycled according to the company):

According to the advertiser (Blueland), after customers send their bottles back to Blueland for recycling, it then pays a third party to clean the bottles and sells them to a recycler who melts the bottles down so the acrylic resin can be reused. The advertiser did not, however, present any evidence on the percentage of resin from its bottles that is actually reused by the recycler in manufacturing or assembling another item.

As a result, NAD recommended, among other things, that Blueland discontinue unqualified recyclability claims for its “forever” bottles.

Compostable vs. recyclable

When attempting to make sense of environmental benefit claims, it helps to know the legal definitions. According to the FTC’s Green Guides, the difference between recyclable and compostable is that recyclable means the product can be reused, while compostable means the product will safely break down into usable compost, such as mulch or “soil-conditioning material.”

+ 2. Quorn Foods (carbon footprint claims)

Meat alternative brand Quorn Foods claims in the YouTube video above that its Thai Wonder Grains “lunch pot” is a step in the right direction to addressing climate change because it “helps us reduce our carbon footprint.”

But the “us” the ad is referring to aren’t consumers, who, if they’re concerned about their carbon footprint, may want to avoid purchasing food packaged in single-use plastic containers that are only around 80 percent recyclable. Rather, the “us” is Quorn Foods, which has publicly committed to reducing its own carbon footprint.

According to an inquiry by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), this wasn’t clear in a version of the ad that aired on TV in April 2020. The U.K. regulator said in a decision that the ad “did not clarify what the claimed reduction of the carbon footprint was being measured against,” i.e., the company’s current carbon footprint.

The ASA also noted that at the time of its inquiry, Thai Wonder Grains was a new product and so “it was not possible to demonstrate a reduction in its footprint.”

Quorn Foods is based in the U.K. but also sells its products in the U.S. The company claims to be “the first global meat-free brand to have the carbon footprint of our products third-party accredited.”

+ 3. Tide purclean (‘plant-based’ laundry detergent)

A description on the back of Tide purclean laundry detergent read: “A powerful, plant-based clean you can feel good about.”

But how would you feel if the laundry detergent was only 75 percent plant-based and the remaining 25 percent consisted of non-plant-based ingredients, including some derived from petroleum?

You might feel a little misled.

In August 2020, the National Advertising Division recommended and Tide agreed to modify its plant-based claims to avoid conveying the unsupported message that the laundry detergent is 100 percent plant-based or that the “powerful cleaning power” is derived solely from plant-based ingredients.

Of note, Tide does not readily identify the petroleum-based ingredients in its purclean laundry detergent on its U.S. site but the company’s Canadian website (ending in .ca) offers a helpful chart that puts ingredients “in simpler terms.” This includes three ingredients that the Canadian site classifies as petroleum-based.

+ 4. Windex and other household cleaners (‘non-toxic’)

Household cleaning products are in high demand as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. However, several brands of household cleaners, including Windex, are facing allegations that they market their products as “non-toxic” when, according to plaintiffs, they contain ingredients that are not only harmful to people but also to pets and the environment. These ingredients include irritants, harsh chemicals and combustibles, according to the lawsuits.

+ 5. Volkswagen/BMW/Chevy/Ford/Mercedes-Benz (‘clean diesel’ autos)

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 2.42.01 PM

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.

+ 6. GreenPan (‘green’ cookware)

Just how “green” is GreenPan?

The company claims on its website that its nonstick ceramic cookware is “green” because 60 percent less carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacturing process of its nonstick coating compared to traditional coatings.

But if that’s the only reason, GreenPan may be running afoul of the FTC’s Green Guides, an agency summary of which states that:

Marketers should not make broad, unqualified general environmental benefit claims like “green” or “eco-friendly.” Broad claims are difficult to substantiate, if not impossible.

In 2012, the National Advertising Division (NAD) recommended that GreenPan discontinue its “eco-friendly” claims, citing a lack of supporting evidence. Now, a class-action lawsuit against GreenPan alleges that the company’s current “green” claims are similarly deceptive.

+ 7. 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.

+ 8. 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.

+ 9. 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.

+ 10. 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.”

+ 11. Rainforest Alliance (Chiquita bananas, coffee, tea, etc.)

rainforest alliance sticker 2

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.

+ 12. 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.

+ 13. 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.

+ 14. 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.

+ 15. 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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