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.