Green products may not be what they seem

Zachary Roth

A lot of products make some impressive claims about their environmental benefits.  But don't believe the hype: According to a new study, many of those boasts are little more than hot air, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The study by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, looked at 500 consumer products in the U.S. and Canada.  More than 95 percent of the items made at least one green "claim" that wasn't backed up by evidence. At times, the firm reported, that meant outright lies about a product's environmental attributes. Other times, product campaigns employed vague or poorly defined language, like "all-natural."  The study also found some cases of fake labels that falsely suggested a third party had vouched for a product's environmental qualities.

The most common form of "greenwashing": products like washing machines that falsely claimed to be compliant with the federal Energy Star program. The government has said it plans to monitor such claims more closely.

Another finding: The past year has seen a surge in the number of products claiming to be free of Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which are often used in baby bottles and kids' toys.  (The Canadian government recently added BPA to its toxic substances list, after evidence emerged that the chemical may damage fetal and infant brains. Phthlates have been the subject of other health concerns, since they have been linked to organ damage in test animals.)  But the report's authors found that every toy it investigated made some false or misleading claim about its environmental properties -- and that less than 1 percent of baby products emerged from the study with a record free of such misrepresentation.

Worth noting: TerraChoice is owned by Underwriters Laboratories, an independent product-safety certification organization that offers programs to certify products' environmental claims.  So if more manufacturers sought certification of their products' claims -- as the report clearly suggests they should -- Underwriters Laboratories would benefit.

(Photo: AP/Paul Sakuma)