We Need Meaningful Standards to Protect the Planet — and Us, too.



Skeptical woman We've all seen the product claims that SOUND like they mean environmental protection. But do they?

* Products labeled "natural" may contain some biological ingredients, but they may also include synthetic dyes and fragrances.

* "Hypoallergenic" has no medical meaning. The word was invented by advertisers who used it in a cosmetics campaign in 1953.  Says the Food and Drug Administation, "There are no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term hypoallergenic. [It] means whatever a particular company wants it to mean."

* "Biodegradable" should mean that, when a product is exposed to air, moisture, bacteria, or other organisms, it will break down and return to its natural state within a reasonably short time. However, no government entity verifies the accuracy of a biodegradable claim; the term is often used simply to provide a marketing edge to a product that otherwise has no real environmental attributes.

* "Free range" implies that a meat or poultry product, including eggs, comes from an animal that was raised in the open air or was free to roam. But a vendor can give his livestock as little as five minutes of fresh air and still make the claim. Free range…or free rein to greenwash you, the concerned ecoshopper?

* "Fragrance-free" suggests a product has no natural perceptible smell; however, synthetic ingredients may have been added to mask odors — and the dangerous phthalates that create them.

What's the point of this litany?

Currently, no government standards define specific "eco" terms like the ones above. Companies are free to use these words to gain a marketing advantage regardless of their accuracy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prohibits deceptive advertising and has issued guidelines encouraging manufacturers to substantiate environmental claims, but the agency rarely enforces its own rules.

This is a problem because consumers who want to protect themselves and the environment are increasingly reading product labels — and walking away confused. Should they buy the "green" cleaner — even though the label also says "Warning – Hazardous" because it actually contains toxic chemicals that can irritate the lungs or eyes?  Lipstick promises to make you beautiful. Should you use it, even though it  may contain lead? And what's with those "fuel efficient" hybrids that get less than 20 mpg?

Greenmoms1 How much easier these choices would be if products were required to meet meaningful standards set by independent third parties, a point Mary Hunt over at In Women We Trust has been arguing for years, and a point being made again this month by the members of the Green Moms Carnival, which Mary is also hosting.

You could avoid most greenwashing traps and label ambiguities if companies adopted comprehensive standards guaranteeing that their products were fully "sustainable" – that they protected public health and the environment throughout their entire commercial "life cycle." That includes the extraction of raw materials through their manufacture and use to final disposal or reuse in a new product.

Ideally, such standards would be set at the federal level. But if you've been watching the health care debate, you know how tough passing new regulations can be. That's why there's so much interest in Wal-Mart's recent jump into the sustainability arena. The retail giant is planning to develop a sustainability index against which it will judge the vendors that supply products to its stores.  Want to do business with Wal-Mart? You'll have to be able to vault over their bar.

How high that bar turns out to be remains to be seen.  Given Wal-Mart's role as the world's retail superpower, the higher we can convince them to set the bar, the better off we'll all be.

To that end — and in honor of Blog Action Day — now would be a good time to contact Wal-Mart and urge the company to set the most meaningful environmental standards possible.

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10 Responses to We Need Meaningful Standards to Protect the Planet — and Us, too.

  1. mother earth aka karen hanrahan October 13, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    How greenly deceptive it all is…no wonder I feel skeptic! I’ll never forget when I discovered the phosphate free laundry detergent I was using had “acceptable” levels of phosphates in it. Why did it say phosphate free? I was so angry.

  2. Diane MacEachern October 14, 2009 at 7:18 am #

    I know exactly how you feel, Karen.

  3. Amber October 14, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    It can be really hard to navigate product claims and separate the truly green from the greenwashing. What saddens me is how terms that were once legitimate, like ‘certified organic’, are continually diluted. It’s one reason I prefer to buy local and handmade whenever possible – it’s the only way I can really feel as if I know what I’m buying.
    I am glad that Wal-Mart is jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. I hope they make real change. But for the moment I fear it will just be more greenwashing.

  4. Lynn from OrganicMania.com October 14, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    Diane, this is a great post with such useful information (but what else is new? You always write great posts with useful information, that’s one reason we all love you!)
    Anyway, the labeling fraud continues to go on…I just learned tonight from Food and Water Watch that cows on USDA Organic Certified dairies can be fed organic CORN to meet the requirements, not put out to pasture. Of course, not all USDA Organic dairies do this – some like Organic Valley exceed the requirements — but this is incredibly disturbing.

  5. A. Simplicity October 14, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    Thank you for the great post and information!! Greenwashing not only hurts the consumer but also degrades and threatens the environmental awareness we as a society are beginning to embrace. When you put money and trust into a product, thinking it is a good choice, only to discover that their eco-friendly promise is all just hype it can be extremely frustrating!! Lets’ hope the big companies will listen and provide us with real sustainable product choices :)

  6. Anna (GreenTalk) October 14, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    Your post is right on point. All these standards seem to be marketing jargon to lure people into believing what they are buying is safe. It saddens me that we all have to be scientists to understand what is in our products.
    As for Walmart, I am very skeptical as to their motive since it seems like it is a pay to create standards. If you got the bucks, you can help create them. Now where is my $100,000 so I can sit at the table?

  7. Diane MacEachern October 15, 2009 at 6:35 am #

    Thanks for the feedback. The key to the success of this newest exercise in setting standards is to stay involved. Let’s not just talk about this once on our blogs. We need to track it and keep coming back to it until we’ve done what we can to ensure the standards are strong and protect us as well as the environment.

  8. Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish October 16, 2009 at 3:31 am #

    Diane, I agree with your response to the comments above. We do need to track this and hold Wal-Mart accountable. I’m hoping that the carnival will hit their radar and that they will realize we need a place at the table. Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath. Like Amber, I choose to stick with local and handmade most of the time, too. I wonder if Wal-Mart would even want to talk to me since I’m not actually a customer of theirs!

  9. Katy from Non-Toxic Kids October 19, 2009 at 7:13 pm #

    Nice, Diane!
    Oh, the lure of hypoallergenic had me for years– I think it was Almay? Another label that means absolutely nothing. It is so confusing for all of us. Thanks for the post.
    I’m with Diane and Amber– local and handmade as much as possible!

  10. Diane MacEachern October 20, 2009 at 3:22 am #

    Honestly, if people would just simplify their lives a bit, buying and using less, we’d go a long way towards solving a lot of these problems! Thanks for weighing in, Beth and Katy.

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