With consumers becoming more and more focused on the planet-friendly bona fides of their products, companies today can’t help but give the people what they want: products that tout their sustainability, recyclability, and general cleanliness. But this is capitalism, so wherever the market can bear, you expect to see companies also trying to cut corners and get the credit for making progress that they haven’t actually made. What’s a person to do to avoid this greenwashing?
To avoid some of this confusion, the government is trying to help, with the FTC issuing rules about what claims companies can and can’t make about their products. This infographic, made by Column Five for Ethical Ocean, shows some of what goes into defining government regulations, and how those claims are affecting consumers.
In effect, companies can’t claim their product doesn’t do things it can’t. Seems simple, but in the world of sustainability, it becomes more difficult. The rules state that products can’t be said to be biodegradable unless they biodegrade in less than a year and can’t be compostable unless they will break down in your own home composting pile. You can imagine some products that will break down “eventually” labeled biodegradable, or items that compost in only industrial composting settings sitting sadly in people’s backyards.
The best way to make sure claims are substantiated is to look for the labels of organizations and government programs that accredit products. Here is a good sampling of things to look for:
Products with the imprimatur of these organizations are probably living up to the claims that they make on their packaging. If you don’t see a label, it’s harder to be sure.
How are these regulations affecting our lifestyle? Every year, the National Geographic Society and Globescan conduct a survey that ranks countries by the “environmental impact of their consumption patterns.” The United States comes in dead last:
There are some caveats: It’s easier to have less impact in your consumption if you’re not consuming at all, and developing countries like India and Brazil have millions of people living far below the poverty line, whose consumption patterns aren’t comparable to ours (though, in the end, that may be the better option). Either way, while we’re labeling and regulating our products’ environmental claims, we’re not actually buying them.
Here is the full infographic: