Government, consumers seeing red over products' excessive 'green' claims

November 18, 1991|By Liz Bowie and Kim Clark

You're shopping for dinner, and there's a box of microwaveable Minute Rice with a picture of tossed rice and broccoli. Mmmm. And the box says the tray is recyclable. Good for you. Good for the earth. Toss it into the cart.

But when it comes time to toss the tray into the recycling bin, you may feel you have been misled.

"We don't take them," says Michael Vermehren, executive vice president of PolySource Mid-Atlantic Inc., the single biggest buyer of recyclable plastics in Maryland.

And even if you could find someone who takes microwave trays, probably no U.S. recycler would take the Minute Rice tray, Mr. Vermehren said, because Kraft Inc. did not stamp the tray with a symbol showing the type of plastic it is made of.

Though symbol-less Minute Rice dishes were on local grocery shelves last week, Kraft says it now stamps its plastic with the recycling symbol.

Wanting to cash in on consumers' growing environmental awareness, manufacturers are scrambling to slap "Good for the Earth" labels on their products. But not all the labels are true. Some of the "green" claims have gotten so outrageous that people are fighting back.

Government officials and private testing companies are attempting to set standard definitions for words such as "biodegradable," "ozone safe" and "environmentally friendly."

A growing number of states have adopted laws forbidding companies from abusing environmental terms. And the Environmental Protection Agency held hearings last week as part of a federal drive to make sure "recycled" and "recyclable" are being used legitimately.

The crackdown comes as consumers are being inundated with green claims by manufacturers.

Indeed, the number of new products claiming to be somehow good for the environment has risen nearly thirtyfold in the last six years, according to Marketing Intelligence Services. By last year, more than one-quarter of all new household products were being marketed as good for the earth, the Naples, N.Y., research firm found.

Old products and companies are trying to rework their images into environmentally friendly ones, too -- sometimes fairly, sometimes not.

The Clorox Co., for example, announced last week that it would start using recycled plastic in its bleach bottles, and Sears announced it would reduce its packaging by 25 percent by 1994.

But others' green marketing campaigns have run into trouble. Du Pont was criticized this summer after running television advertisements touting its decision to use double-hulled oil tankers to prevent oil spills. Calling Du Pont the world's worst industrial polluter, the Friends of the Earth, an environmental group based in Washington, said the ads were hypocritical.

The boom is fueled by the millions of dollars to be made by appealing to consumers' environmental guilt, business people say.

Sales of green products, estimated at nearly $2 billion last year, are projected to rise to nearly $9 billion by 1995, according to the Friends of the Earth.

Polls consistently show that more than half of consumers weigh environmental detriments and benefits when making buying decisions.

Workers at the Melitta coffee filter factory in Cherry Hill, N.J., have seen firsthand the difference environmental friendliness can make.

Because of consumers' worries about the effects of a toxic chemical in bleached paper, Melitta is capturing a growing share of the $100 million U.S. coffee filter market with its 2-year-old unbleached "natural" coffee filter, said spokeswoman Barbara Hausner. Melitta has 13 percent of the market for coffee filters.

But the only "green" in some products has been the cash paid for them by customers.

The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit against several companies in some egregious cases. For instance, the FTC forced American Enviro Products Inc. of Placentia, Calif., to retract claims that its "Bunnies" disposable diapers were biodegradable and would disappear "before your child grows up" or within three to five years.

"Bunnies" and almost everything else in landfills take decades to degrade. So the FTC told the company it could claim its diapers degraded in municipal composting facilities only if they pointed out in the same ads that there are few composting facilities in the United States.

Attorneys general in several states also have started fighting back. In the last six months, 11 states have sued to stop Mobil Corp. from marketing Glad trash bags as "biodegradable," since they won't decompose in landfills.

And in Maryland, the attorney general's office recently joined 12 other states in halting the marketing of "The Vitalizer," a product that claims to improve gas mileage and reduce car emissions. The states want the company that sells the product to prove its claim is true.

Four states have restricted environmental marketing by, for example, setting minimum standards for recycled contents in products marketed as "recycled."

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