Green Groups Ask FTC to Halt CBS Greenwashing

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.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com