Paper or plastic?
Cloth or disposable?
Recycled or recyclable?
What's an eco-shopper to do?
In the past few years, as public concern over the environment has grown, manufacturers have sought to cash in on the rising green tide with sales pitches that their products are "environmentally friendly," "ozone-safe" or "recyclable."
But speakers at a national "environmental shopping" conference Baltimore yesterday warned that consumers should be wary of the welter of confusing, conflicting and sometimes misleading claims made about the environmental impact of various products.
"Some claims are valid and meaningful, but others are meaningless and untrue," said Elizabeth L. Rich, director of environmental shopping for the Pennsylvania Resources Council, a non-profit group specializing in recycling and waste reduction.
For instance, pitches that plastic bags and other throwaway products are bio- or photo-degradable seem to evaporate when confronted with the fact that nothing -- not even paper or discarded food -- decomposes in a modern municipal landfill.
And those aerosol cans and foam-packaged products that profess to be "ozone-friendly" may have replaced ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons with other chemicals that also deplete Earth's upper atmosphere; or they may contribute to ground-level smog.
Even shopping for recycled goods can get complicated. Some product labels claim credit for "recycling" waste generated in the manufacturing process, thus exaggerating their contribution to preserving dwindling landfill space. And a plastic container labeled "recyclable" may not be in your community's recycling ,, program, because markets have not developed nationwide for many types of plastic.
With public opinion surveys showing environmental concerns at an all-time high and people saying they're willing to pay more for ecologically beneficial products, the outlook is for still more "green marketing." Even some businessmen admit the abuses need to be reined in.
"There's certainly a lot of hype out there," said Peter Marcalus, vice president of Marcal Paper Mills Inc., which manufactures recycled paper products. "Manufacturers need to cut through that and provide honest, objective viewpoints on their products."
But many cannot even agree on the meaning of terms such as "recyclable," much less concur on standards for judging which products are environmentally sound and which are not. The Federal Trade Commission, which investigates deceptive advertising, has taken action against several products with misleading "green" claims, such as a spray cement and a glitter hair spray that falsely professed to use "ozone-safe" propellants. The FTC has about 25 "green marketing" investigations under way, according to Michael Dershowitz, a senior commission attorney.
The FTC is still reviewing petitions from consumer groups, environmentalists and state attorneys general who urged federal officials last summer to draw up voluntary national guidelines for green marketing, Dershowitz says.
Meanwhile, two private groups are vying to provide consumers with reliable ratings of products' environmental claims. But one of those, Green Cross Certification Co., came under attack yesterday from the Environmental Defense Fund, which issued a report saying the firm has engaged in questionable business and product certification practices.
Green Cross, in Oakland, Calif., has certified the environmental claims on more than 400 products made by 100 different companies, according to Stanley Rhodes, the firm's president.
The EDF report contends that Green Cross misrepresents itself as a not-for-profit organization, when it is part of a for-profit company. And Green Cross has allowed its logo to be displayed on products with unverified or misleading claims, the report says.
Rhodes rejected the environmental group's criticisms as themselves "misleading and distorted." He noted that officers of the Environmental Defense Fund sit on the board of his firm's rival, Green Seal, another eco-label group just starting up. Richard Denison, co-author of EDF's report, said none of his group's officers with ties to Green Seal took part in the Green Cross report.
Both groups did agree that the dispute highlighted the need for government action.
"If the government had stepped in long ago [with guidelines], we wouldn't have been attacked by EDF," Rhodes said. "The fact is it's a free-for-all out there."
Until guidelines for green marketing are developed, consumer advocates say the only way a shopper can be sure is to examine all claims carefully and ask questions.
"The whole purpose of environmental shopping is to teach consumers to think," says Ruth Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council. The basics of environmental shopping, she says, are the three R's -- Reduce, Reuse and Recycle: Reduce consumption and waste; buy reusable materials whenever possible; and look for recycled or recyclable products.
But Becker suggests consumers add two R's -- Reject and React. They should refuse to buy products with misleading claims, she says, and they should complain to the manufacturers. The council publishes a directory of manufacturers' toll-free telephone numbers for that purpose.
One speaker, however, suggested that all the furor over "green marketing" may miss the point.
"Because everything takes an environmental toll, consumerism and environmentalism are on a collision course," said Hannah Holmes, contributing editor of Garbage magazine. She said that, before buying anything, "consumers should ask themselves: Do I need this? . . . Do I really need this?"
The resources council co-sponsored the conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A two-day EPA-sponsored session on environmental labeling continues today and tomorrow.