Green advertising claims to heal or deceive?

You've trained to read the labels carefully ... but what do they mean?

by Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.


any people are trying hard to understand the impact we are having on the natural world. You can see them in stores, reading labels, making product choices and trying to figure out what is good for themselves and the world. But with the insidious, deceptive, government-approved product labeling, buying green may be accomplishing very little and in some cases, may be causing great harm.

What does it all mean?

We have all at one time or another chosen a product labeled "biodegradable" over another that is not. And many of us feel more comfortable buying something with the now familiar triangle of arrows indicating a recycled product. Many families feel safer since they installed the water filter and more and more people every day are buying organically made goods. But what are you really getting?

Currently, there are no federal laws governing what a seller can say about a product. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued "Guides for the use of Environmental Marketing Claims." These guidelines state that "qualifications and disclosures should be sufficiently clear and prominent to prevent deception; claims should make clear whether they apply to the product, the package or a component of either; claims should not overstate an environmental attribute or benefit, expressly or by implication; and comparative claims should be presented in a manner that makes the basis for the comparison sufficiently clear to avoid consumer deception."

But the guidelines carry no force of law and compliance is strictly voluntary. Many states have advertising regulations, but enforcement is largely non-reactive. Nothing is done unless someone complains.

What are some of the assumptions you make about environmental advertising claims?




When you see this or the chasing arrows symbol, do you assume that the product is completely made of recycled materials? The FTC says a product should not be labeled recycled unless it is made of materials that were "diverted from the solid waste stream for use as raw materials in the manufacture or assembly of a new product or package." But this term has been widely abused.

Some products labeled as recycled are made from reconditioned or reused parts or are made from industrial scraps that would normally be reused anyway. Some products that contain only 10 percent waste material and 90 percent virgin material will claim to be recycled.

If you don't see percentages of how much post-consumer waste is used in the product, beware. I have even seen products that only claim to be recyclable, knowing that most consumers won't notice the different ending of the word and will assume that the product is made from recycled materials.


Ozone friendly


When you see this claim, you probably assume that the product will not harm the atmosphere at all. This may not be true. Some products that may not contain any ozone-destroying chemicals may contain volatile organic compounds that, when released into the atmosphere, can cause photochemical smog.

Which is it?



  Probably no term has been as abused as this one. To decompose, most materials must be in contact with the elements sunlight, air, wind and water. Since most plastic trash bags are disposed of in a landfill, cut off from the elements, this claim is quite deceptive. Landfills that are 150 years old have been uncovered and the newspapers in them are still readable.


Phosphate free

  Phosphates are organic compounds that create problems when they reach bodies of water. Algae feed on them, creating huge populations called algae blooms that can use all the oxygen in a lake or stream, killing other organisms. Many cleaners that declare themselves to be phosphate-free still contain other harmful chemicals.



  Organic farmers are allowed to use a genetically altered bacteria on their crops to control insects. Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) has been considered harmless to humans, but in 1998, French doctors discovered that a sub-type of the Bt bacterium caused a serious infection in a soldier wounded in Bosnia. Another researcher found that the bacterium weakened immune systems in mice and destroyed the walls of blood cells.



  Watch out here. Some products contain Olestra, a new no-fat cooking oil. The mandatory warning label states, "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K have been added." Procter & Gamble, makers of Olestra, say consumers in tests that led the Food and Drug Administration to require this label ate 10 times more of the substance than normal snack food eaters would consume.



  This is an overused and misleading term. Unless you are told the circumstances under which the product is non-toxic, you know very little. The most environmentally sensitive cleaner I have found, made by a very reputable company, still carries the warning, "Caution: eye irritant, harmful if swallowed, keep out of reach of children, contact a physician immediately." A "natural citrus" cleaner that claims to be biodegradable and cruelty free has a warning label that takes up half the back of the bottle.


Cruelty free

  This term has become very deceptive. The finished product itself may not have been tested on animals, but without doing some research, you really don't know if all the components of the product were also made without animal testing. Be very suspicious when you see a label that says, "This finished product not tested on animals."

Unless you really understand the ingredients in the product, avoid items that claim to be: all natural, practically non-toxic, essentially non-toxic, Earth Smart and environmentally preferable. Ambiguous claims like these suggest that there may be more to the story.

The phrase "let the buyer beware" has never had more meaning than it does today. With the alternative health products industry earning billions of dollars for product manufacturers, more and more companies are interested in attracting the health and environment conscious consumer. So watch out.

All that is recycled in some products may be tired old advertising gimmicks.



  1. Read the Federal Trade Commissions guidelines for environmental marketing claims at and at the FTC site at
  2. Pitch-In Canada has a site about environmental advertising claims at
  3. Read about California environmental marketing regulations at
  4. Visit the website of an industry green advertising consultant and read the advice being given to corporations to attract environmentally conscious consumers. Read for yourself how industries learn to manipulate us at
  Jackie Giuliano, a writer and a Professor of Environmental Studies, can be found in Venice, California, planning to use bottled water to boil pasta when fluoridation starts in L.A. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to and visit