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Green Groups Ask FTC to Halt CBS Greenwashing

RP Siegel | Wednesday April 13th, 2011 | 6 Comments

A number of leading environmental groups including Rainforest Action Network, Center for Environmental Health, and Friends of the Earth filed a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission this week, asserting that the “EcoAd” program recently launched by CBS/EcoMedia violates federal law and the commission’s Green Guides for environmental claims. According to the complaint, EcoAd, which offers advertisers the use of an EcoAd symbol for a fee, “…may deceive viewers, provide CBS with an unfair advantage over its competitors, and create an unfair advantage for companies and products participating in the program.”

In essence the groups are looking to the FTC to ban greenwashing from the airwaves:

According to Jennifer Kaplan of Ecopreneurist, another party to the complaint, “the CBS EcoAd ‘digital green leaf’ is an eco-label that can be easily misinterpreted by consumers. We are concerned that CBS has failed to establish meaningful and verifiable criteria for the label and has a clear conflict of interest regarding who is eligible for the program.” Kaplan wrote a critique of the program back in January in which she called the digital green leaf program, “potentially confusing to consumers.”

Ironically, Kaplan had named Eco-Media’s founder Paul Polizzotto, one of the Top Ecopreneurs of 2008, calling him “a man with a solid and laudable mission.” But that was before CBS bought out the firm. The good news about this program is that proceeds from ad sales (roughly 10%) go towards the funding of environmental projects that are facilitated by credible environmental groups who claim the ability to leverage donations by a factor of ten. EcoMedia also claims that only companies with proven environmental, social, and governance performance will be approved. Sounds good so far.

The problem lies in the unintended consequences. Because, intentionally or not, the “digital leaf” is an eco-label, which leads consumers to believe that the companies sponsoring the ads, are in fact, exemplary, when it comes to environmental responsibility, or at least that they meet some kind of explicit standard. That might not necessarily be the case. In fact, all it really means,  Kaplan claims, is that the company takes the one specific green action of purchasing the EcoAd label. And not only do consumers get hurt by this, but so do smaller, green companies that might be exemplary in their behavior but can’t afford to buy a TV ad.

For example, featured “launch partners” back in January included PG&E which has a long track record of environmentally detrimental practices including one recent episode where a Senior Director was caught spying on a group that was organizing a protest against smart meters. Also on the list of partners was GM’s Chevrolet division which, the new Chevy Volt notwithstanding, has a history of fighting state vehicle emission standards, promoting climate change denial, and a long track record of anti-environmental funding and lobbying.

CBS calls the  green leaf symbol that appears at the bottom of each ad, a “green stamp of approval” available for use on its network, local television, radio, outdoor and online outlets. The network claims that the ads are a “sustainable media” effort, since a percentage of the revenue CBS brings in from EcoAds will be donated to local environmental projects. In promoting the ad campaign, CBS says  the sponsors’ participation sends, “…a powerful message to viewers that the brand is committed to both the environment and the communities they serve.”

The plaintiffs are concerned that “CBS has failed to establish meaningful and verifiable criteria for the label and has a clear conflict of interest regarding who is eligible for the program.” Kaplan goes on to say, “Eco-labels that can be bought for the price of a TV ad threaten to further erode consumer confidence and diminish the value of legitimate environmental practices.”

“An Eco-label that promises advertisers a green image while telling them they don’t need to do anything to earn that image is the very definition of greenwashing,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of Center for Environmental Health.

In their letter, the groups asked FTC to investigate and warn CBS/EcoMedia about their non-compliance with the FTC Act and the FTC Green Guides, and to require revisions to the EcoAd program, including,

  1. The addition of disclaimers accompanying any use of the EcoAd symbol by advertisers, to clearly and prominently alert viewers that the symbol does not specify any positive environmental attributes of companies or products advertised;
  2. Development of criteria for evaluating advertisers and products for participation in the EcoAd program, including publication, public comment, and revisions based on comments; and
  3. Oversight by an independent, third-party auditor that can verify whether companies or products seeking to use the EcoAd symbol meet the criteria.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  1. April 13, 2011 at 9:08 am PDT | Sarah Douglis writes:

    This story was written without contacting EcoMedia for its side of the story.

    Below is our statement.

    - Sarah Douglis, Vice President Creative Affairs and Operations

    STATEMENT FROM ECOMEDIA:

    “We are extremely proud of the EcoAd program, which launched in January. Through this program, advertising dollars are being directed to projects that we believe will have environmental and social benefits in communities around the country. In consultation with leading environmental groups, a rigorous methodology has been developed by which projects are sourced, financed, implemented, and their benefits measured and verified. A version of this methodology currently being revised for public viewing and will be available on the website shortly.

    Regarding several of the claims addressed in this article, we would like to point out that:

    1. Advertisements bearing the EcoAd logo also direct consumers to visit the EcoAd website (ecoad.cbs.com), which explains very clearly the methods, motives, and benefits of the program;

    2. The EcoAd homepage bears the following disclaimer, which clearly states what the EcoAd is and is not:

    ‘A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each EcoAd goes to projects we believe will benefit the environment. EcoAd is not a certification program nor is the EcoAd logo a seal of approval. EcoMedia does not in any way certify, endorse or make any representations about EcoAd advertisers, their products or services.’

    3. CBS has committed to airing separate EcoAd announcements explaining the program and the role of the logo in markets where EcoAds run.

    Furthermore, the EcoAd program has been publicly endorsed by many prominent environmental leaders and organizations, including: Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council, members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), The Climate Group, Debbie Levin of The Environmental Media Association, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, Terry Tamminen with 7th Generation Advisors, and Joel Makower of GreenBiz Group, among many others.

    Moreover, it appears that some groups who are not as familiar with our program would prefer it to be revised to match their tastes, even while they continue to acknowledge its power and potential to do great things for the environment. Meanwhile other groups, including many of the most recognizable leaders in the environmental community find our program to be exemplary.”

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  2. April 13, 2011 at 10:02 am PDT | Jennifer Kaplan writes:

    Actually Sarah, I had an extensive phone conversation with EcoMedia’s Founder Paul Polizzotto and have had several email exchanges with CBS media representative Shannon Jacobs. I’m wondering how you did not know this before asserting: “This story was written without contacting EcoMedia for its side of the story.” Who else should we have contacted?

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  3. April 13, 2011 at 10:08 am PDT | Jennifer Kaplan writes:

    And, I’d like to add, that directing viewers of TV, radio and billboards advertisements to “visit the EcoAd website” for an explanation of explains the methods, motives, and benefits of the program is a laughable way to inform consumers about the intent of the eco-label to which they are exposed. Likewise, airing separate announcements explaining the program and the role of the logo is equally laughable. Why not provide that information while the consumer is actually seeing the label? Wouldn’t that solve be a far better way to stop the confusion?

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  4. April 13, 2011 at 17:45 pm PDT | RP Siegel writes:

    What interested me in this story was not so much the question of whether EcoAds should be considered greenwashing or not but the far broader issue of standards and accountability in mass media’s representation of companies with respect to their level of environmental and social responsibility. I acknowledged the beneficial aspects (good news) of the program, while at the same time I did not find the revisions suggested by the plaintiff groups to be unreasonable. They would most likely make a good program even better.

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    • April 13, 2011 at 19:00 pm PDT | Jennifer Kaplan writes:

      Great response, RP! I, too, have many times praised the programs’ mission and programatic choices and would love to see nothing more than the’good program be better.’By no means are all ecolabels greenwash. To the contrary, ecolabels are a valuable way of disclosing environmental information to consumers. Many ecolabels adhere to strict standards and hold products to meaningful degrees of quality. Meaningful standards put pressure on businesses to maintain levels of excellenceand that’s important. If the market accepts the CBS digital green leaf, in its current configuration, as designation of meaningful standards then it diminishes the hard-won legitimacy of the the good ecolabels.

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