Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Buzzwords Decoded: 5 Green Claims That May Be Misleading

Make sure you read the labels if you want to purchase truly environmentally responsible products.
By Lexie Sachs
As smart shoppers, we’re all aware that the consumer goods industry is full of misleading marketing claims, and the eco-friendly product space is one place to be especially wary. While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates these statements (as laid out in its Green Guide), it can be tricky to decipher which labels are true and which don’t mean anything at all.
Here are five common buzzwords you’ll recognize — and tips for when you should be skeptical:
1. Eco-Friendly
When a product is labeled “eco-friendly,” “environmentally friendly,” or “green” without providing an explanation, chances are it’s just a marketing gimmick. These terms can be misleading because they let you assume that the product is good for the environment. Essentially every product will have some type of unwanted effect, but slapping on “eco-friendly” implies that the product has no negative environmental impacts.
Look for super-specific details instead of broad phrases, such as “eco-friendly: product is made from 60% recycled fiber.” The more details given, the better you can understand what the environmental benefits might be.
2. Natural
There is no legal definition for the word “natural” when used on consumer goods. “Natural” suggests the product comes from plants, minerals, and other things found in nature. But by the time most products reach you, the raw materials and ingredients have gone through a series of manufacturing processes and therefore have been synthetically altered.
If you’re curious about natural food products, Whole Foods has a comprehensive list of ingredients that are not accepted at their stores. If you’re looking for natural beauty and cleaning products, they should only contain plant- and mineral-based ingredients that are minimally processed.
3. Recycled
A manufacturer can claim that a product contains recycled content only if the materials would have otherwise ended up as trash (either from a manufacturing process or consumer waste). Unless the entire product and its packaging are both made from 100% recycled content, the FTC requires specification. Look out for details on labels. Is the product or the packaging (or both) made from recycled content? How much of it is recycled?
4. Organic
From organic food to organic cotton and more, chances are you’re seeing this word thrown around a lot. Organic means that crops are grown without genetic modification and without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics. Look out for products with legitimate certifications, such as ones that are USDA or GOTS certified.
Keep in mind — just because a product is grown organically, it does not mean it won’t have harmful environmental impacts at some point in its life.
5. Biodegradable
Most consumers assume that biodegradable means, when the product is discarded, it will decompose into the earth in a reasonable amount of time. However, this is not usually true. Many products with this claim won’t actually degrade in a landfill, and it could actually take hundreds or thousands of years for the product to fully deteriorate. So what should you look for? Products that that give you a specific time frame and degrading condition, such as “biodegradable within two years in compost facility.”
Lexie Sachs is a product analyst in the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.