April Fool's Day is no laughing matter for Maryland Public Interest Research Group, or MaryPIRG, which is announcing the winners of its annual "Don't Be Fooled" awards today. The awards train the spotlight on companies that MaryPIRG says betray the public trust.
MaryPIRG works with Earth Day 2000, a San Francisco-based consumer group that also publishes the Earth Day 2000 newsletter and directs the Truth in Environmental Advertising Campaign.
The groups look for companies that they say mislead, self-congratulate or outright lie.
"Earth Day 2000 tries to hold companies accountable for their environmental claims," says Caroline Harwood, Earth Day 2000's director. "We try to highlight the most heinous and blatant claims."
This year's top winner is Mr. Coffee, a company that says in print ads that its filters are manufactured with a chlorine-free process and made of recycled paper. Ms. Harwood and MaryPIRG say these claims are false. Mr. Coffee's legal counsel was unavailable for comment by press time.
Mr. Coffee and other companies, Ms. Harwood says, are guilty of "greenwashing," making misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service. These claims are designed to capitalize on the growing urge among consumers to "buy green" and make environmentally sensitive decisions.
"After Earth Day 2000, when hundreds of millions of people showed their concern for the environment, greenwashing really took off in a big way," Ms. Harwood says. "Suddenly everybody was trying to buy green, and companies thought, 'Ah ha.' "
A special "Don't Be Fooled" award goes to Procter & Gamble Co. for its "Decision Earth" curriculum, distributed to 70,000 teachers nationwide.
The curriculum is written without bias, says Scott Stewart, public affairs manager for Procter & Gamble. He says the company has received nothing but compliments since beginning the curriculum in 1992. "Not one complaint until the activists from the Pacific Northwest brought it up," he adds.
MaryPIRG takes issue especially with the campaign's claim that clear-cutting "opens the forest floor to sunshine, thus stimulating growth and providing food for animals."
According to MaryPIRG, clear-cutting wreaks environmental havoc. Mr. Stewart says the company only aims to offer a description that could spark environmental debates in the classroom.
MaryPIRG lists other "Don't Be Fooled" award-winners and states its reasons for choosing these companies. All claims of misleading information or falsifications come from MaryPIRG.
* Nationwide Industries Inc., a Durham, N.C., group that MaryPIRG says falsely touts its products as "environmentally friendly" and free of toxins.
* DeMert & Dougherty Inc., a Westchester, Ill., company whose All Set hair spray, advertised as environmentally safe, contains chemicals that lead to the formation of smog.
* Texwipe Company, a New Jersey firm that makes computer- and fax-cleaning products with a compound that damages the ozone layer.
* Solar Sales Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that says its surge suppressor reduces electric bills and benefits the environment.
* Ion Systems Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., which says its NO-RAD System removes risk of radon decay.
* White Castle Systems Inc., the Columbus, Ohio-based fast-food chain, claims its paper packaging can be recycled. But the collection facilities, MaryPIRG argues, will not accept paper contaminated by food.
* BPI Environmental Inc., a packaging company based in Massachusetts that says its plastic grocery bag offers environmental advantage and saves space in landfills.
* The "wise use" movement, a group of companies that aims to develop and commercialize America's public lands under the guise of environmental sensitivity.
All but Procter & Gamble and the "wise use" movement have already been subject to Federal Trade Commission action. "FTC guidelines have no teeth, so these products can sit on the shelves for months," Ms. Harwood says.
"As a consumer, I can tell if my laundry detergent cleans whiter than the next, but I can't tell if my garbage bags degrade in a landfill or if my coffee filters are made from recycled paper," she says. "Companies need to tell the truth to help us shop green."