How Green Is That Gizmo?

Out of more than 1,000 products examined, only one met federal standards

The great green Christmas tree debate has reached a confusing crescendo. The National Christmas Tree Assn. says farming real trees is perfectly "eco-friendly." Makers of artificial trees say their plastic plants are kinder to the planet because they're reusable. Who's right? As with many green product claims, it's nearly impossible for a consumer to make the call.

The Federal Trade Commission wants greater clarity. In late November, it started reviewing its "Green Guides"—voluntary guidelines it asks companies to adopt to help them avoid breaking laws against deceptive marketing. "We have seen a surge in environmental claims," says Janice Podoll Frankle, a lawyer at the FTC's bureau of consumer protection. "We want to make sure the guides reflect today's marketplace, consumer perceptions, and current science and technology." The commission will begin a series of public workshops to update its Green Guides on Jan. 8.

How fast and loose is green marketing? TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which advises companies on green product positioning, reviewed claims companies made about 1,018 widely sold goods. Using metrics from the FTC and the Environmental Protection Agency, TerraChoice concluded that all but one of the claims were false or could be misleading. "If truly green products have a hard time differentiating themselves from the fake ones, then this whole notion of a green market will fall apart," says Scot Case, vice-president at TerraChoice.

TerraChoice broke the claims into various offenses. The "Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off" includes electronics makers who trumpet the energy efficiency of their computers, printers, and other gizmos without mentioning they're made of toxic metals. The "Sin of No Proof" pertains to producers of facial tissues and paper towels who boast about using recycled fiber but provide no certification on their packaging or Web sites. Then there's the "Sin of Irrelevance." That's about declaring that your shaving gel or window cleaner is "free of chlorofluorocarbons." Most countries banned such chemicals 30 years ago.

Critics of overheated green advertising say the FTC's review is long overdue. The commission issued its first Green Guides in 1992 to discourage manufacturers from slapping words like "recyclable" willy-nilly on products that clearly weren't. Packages of pesticides were getting labeled "practically nontoxic." Plastic diapers that could take 500 years to break down in a landfill were touted as biodegradable. So the guides were drawn up, and companies ranging from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) to Mr. Coffee (JAH) and Orkin (ROL) got their wrists slapped by the FTC. But in recent years, there has been little enforcement, even as innovations such as renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets proliferated.

Meanwhile, green marketers continue to spin. Nestlé (NSRGY) named its redesigned plastic bottle for Poland Spring water Eco-Shape, even though the bottles are destined to rattle around at the dump just like all the others. The container is made with 30% less plastic than other like-sized bottles, so it has "a lighter environmental footprint," says Heidi Paul, a vice-president at Nestlé Waters North America. But that doesn't ease the concerns of Joel Makower, executive editor at environmental trend-watcher "There's a lot going on that just isn't right," he says.

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