All posts by dbrooks

“Would bamboo by any other name biodegrade as well?”

It’s a tough environment out there for environmental marketers.  Even makers of an innovative bamboo-derived fabric, Bambosa, can’t make a seemingly slam-dunk green marketing claim without close scrutiny from the FTC.  Is the FTC splitting hairs…or fibers?  Hardly.

The Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement in October 2009 with The M Group (the makers of Bambosa) which alleged the company falsely claimed its rayon products are made of bamboo fiber, retain bamboo’s antimicrobial properties, and are biodegradable. According to the FTC:

Just because bamboo is green does not mean that companies who purport to make clothing and other textiles from processed bamboo can make unsupported “green” claims.

The FTC took exception with The M Group’s claim that fabrics made from Bambosa fibers retained bamboo’s natural antimicrobial properties.  According to the FTC, rayon fibers derived from cellulose from bamboo do not retain any natural antimicrobial properties of the plant.

Further, however, the conversion process involves harsh chemicals that remove any antimicrobial properties while releasing hazardous air pollution. Clearly the FTC believes the ends (a “green marketing claim”) do not justify the means.

The M Group agreed that it will not make any future bamboo claims unless they are true and backed by reliable evidence, and that it will no longer claim that the clothing and bath products it sells are made of bamboo fiber – when they actually are made of rayon processed from bamboo plants.

The FTC also recently took actions against three other products labeled biodegradable because, in reality, they were unlikely to have the opportunity or even ability to break down.   The companies that make the affected products – Sami Designs, LLC, doing business as (d/b/a) Jonäno; CSE, Inc., d/b/a Mad Mod; and Pure Bamboo, LLC – all subsequently settled the FTC’s complaints and agreed to stop making the false claims.

The Commission’s logic is that these rayon products are not biodegradable because they will not break down in a reasonably short time after customary disposal.  Most clothing and textiles are disposed of either by recycling or sending to a landfill. Neither method results in quick biodegradation.

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European Bioplastics Group Distances Itself from ‘Oxo-Degradables’

According to an article in Packaging News, The European trade association European Bioplastics has called for claims of biodegradability and compostability to be backed by international standards.

European Bioplastics said products that did not meet the standard requirements risked confusing the public, and it was important that items carrying the seedling logo, for compostable products, were not associated in anyway with oxo-biodegradable products.

Chairman Andy Sweetman said the environmental credentials of the bioplastic products were subject to close scrutiny. “If products that claim to be biodegradable or compostable are not proven to fulfil acknowledged standards, this is liable to impact negatively on our own members’ products, even though they fully comply,” he said.

A spokesperson for one manufacturer of products using oxo-degrabale additives said

“It’s nonsense for organisations to say that oxo-degradable plastics have to comply with composting standards,” he said.

Tell that to the composters who must spend hours (and hundreds of dollars) screening out partially degraded fragments of ‘partly’ degradable plastics from finished compost. It is a huge issue for the composting industry. In fact, one composter calculated that a significant portion of his expenses were caused by dealing with non-compostable plastic bags.

Click on the link to read the European Bioplastics position paper on oxo-biogradable plastics.

European Plastics Recyclers Warn Against ‘Oxo-Degradable’ Additives

The European Plastics Recyclers Association (EuPR) recently urged manufacturers to exercise caution if using oxo-degradable additives, warning they have the potential to do more harm to the environment than good.

“We urge manufacturers of PET resin and packaging to refrain from introductions of degradable additive-containing products until data is made available for review and verification so we can better understand these products and their potential ramifications,” said the association.”

Why the concern, especially from a trade association funded by the plastics industry.

Well, according to an article in The Guardian, studies of one brand of “degradable bags” commissioned by the Biodegradable Products Institute, found that breakdown is not at all assured even in the most favorable of environmental conditions. The Guardian goes on to cite a recent Swedish study that found that polyethylene containing manganese (degradable) additives stops breaking down when put in compost, probably due to the influence of ammonia or other gases generated by microorganisms in the compost.

Additive manufacturer’s will continue to face growing skepticism and scrutiny while they continue to make unsubstantiated marketing claims.

FTC Raises Question: “Is Anything Biodegradable?”

NYTimes Green Blogger Kate Galbraith published a story about a recent FTC action against retailer K-Mart and two other companies (Tender Corp., and Dyna-E International) with making “false and unsubstantiated claims” that their products were biodegradable.  (The two other companies make branded products carried by the retailer).   K-Mart and Tender Corp. have since settled with the FTC, according to the post.

You can read the entire story here.

Kmart Corp. called its American Fare brand disposable plates biodegradable, while Tender Corp. called its Fresh Bath-brand moist wipes biodegradable, and Dyna-E International called its Lightload brand compressed dry towels biodegradable.

The FTC’s press release explains the logic of the action:

Since 1992, the FTC’s “Green Guides” have advised marketers that unqualified biodegradable claims are acceptable only if they have scientific evidence that their product will completely decompose within a reasonably short period of time under customary methods of disposal. In the three complaints announced today, the FTC alleged that the defendants’ products typically are disposed in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities, where it is impossible for waste to biodegrade within a reasonably short time. (italics added for emphasis)

What makes this case so fascinating…and important for Greenwashing Spies…is that federal officials appear to be scrutinizing green marketing claims based on two criteria:

  1. The product claim of biodegradable and/or compostable based on scientific tests and standards.
  2. Consumers must have a reasonable chance to take advantage of the marketing claim, i.e., the product must actually be sent to a municipal composting facility where it will actually be composted.

It’s the second point that is so meaningful for responsible marketers and careful consumers.

“We hope that these actions will serve as notice to these markets that an unqualified claim of biodegradability is probably false and cannot be substantiated,” said FTC attorney Michael Davis.  “Maybe a piece of produce could be labeled biodegradable if it’s customarily disposed of through composting,” he said, “but the statistics show that most household trash goes to landfills. So even a piece of produce might not biodegrade” in a reasonable period of time, he explained.

Let’s hope this sets a warning bell among purchasing departments of major retailers throughout the US, if not in the marketing departments of manufacturers:  marketing language involving hot-button words like “biodegradable” and “compostable” are guilty first…or at least highly suspect…if they are not backed by both scientific evidence and qualifications to those claims.

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Red Flags of Green Marketing

Boulder, Colorado-based trademark attorney Andrea Anderson of the law firm Holland & Hart recently posted a excellent article on Colorado Business Magazine’s website on how businesses can be a more truthful and accurate green marketer.  You can read the entire post here.

The article presents an good checklist for companies who wish to avoid being labeled a “Greenwasher”.  However, we thought it also made a good primer on the tricks that unscrupulous green marketers employ so you, the careful and conscientious consumer, can avoid being greenwashed.

According to  Anderson, here are eight key dos and don’t for responsible green marketing:

1. Environmental claims must be accurate and not misleading
2. Substantiate your environmental claims, especially for environmental claims like “degradable” or “compostable” which must be substantiated through scientific evidence, such as tests, analyses, research or studies.
3. Make claims that are clear and specific. Vague claims that are open to varying interpretations are more likely to be deemed misleading.
4. Avoid fine print. Any “qualifications,” “explanations” or “disclaimers” need to be clear and prominent so that they are easy for consumers to read and understand.
5. Choose your certifying partners wisely.
6. Don’t take your suppliers’ claims at face value. Demand substantiation of all environmental claims made by suppliers and vendors before you include these claims in your advertising.
7. Take extra care with “hot-button” terms. Before using any of these terms (“degradable,” “compostable,” “recyclable” and “recycled,” among others), careful marketers should consult the FTC’s Green Guides for the use of green marketing terms, available on the FTC’s website.
8. New FTC guidance is coming:  The FTC will likely publish new proposed guidelines some time during 2009.