* 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?
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.