Don’t Get Bamboozled: How to Respond to the FTC’s Recent Crackdown on Greenwashing

By: Michael Wolfe, Director, Environmental Certification Services Scientific Certification Systems

Since the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to 78 companies advising them to stop illegally labeling and advertising rayon products as “bamboo,” manufacturers and retailers have been wondering if this signals a widespread greenwash crackdown.

The risk is clear—the textile market, for example, has enough green claims to make an eco-conscious consumer’s head spin. Labels claim that products are recyclable, biodegradable, eco-friendly and more. The FTC has focused on the textile industry because there is great consumer demand for environmentally-preferable fabrics–and there’s also plenty of confusion in the marketplace. The FTC has even created a guide called “Avoid Bamboo-zling Your Customers” to help manufacturers avoid making false claims and a corresponding “Have you been bamboozled?”consumer alert.

We have worked in the area of environmental claims and in the textile industry long enough to see some patterns in regulation and to see some ways to navigate the uncertainty. When manufacturers make statements about the green qualities of their products, they need to make  sure they can back up the claims with cold hard data. The FTC has said that it is targeting unsubstantiated claims. Pick up a “recycled content” labeled product in any store, and it’s likely to simply say “recycled content,” without any information about what percentage is recycled content, or what that really means

The best advice in this age of unprecedented transparency is to make verifiable claims. As tempting as it may be to advertise a fabric as “natural” or “sustainable,” it is clear that even though a product starts from bamboo material, an environmentally damaging process transforms it into rayon. Whether a disingenuous claim results in consumer backlash or FTC fines, it is can be avoided with common sense.

Be critical when shopping for a certification. For example, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent certification for responsibly harvested wood that was developed with input from NGO stakeholders, while Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is industry sponsored. It’s not hard to guess which one is more rigorous. Don’t just rely on other people’s claims either. You can get in trouble for making claims about a product because somewhere upstream in the supply chain, someone did not comply with the claim.

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