Arm & Hammer is selling fabric softener sheets that it says are "more sensible for the environment." Gillette makes cans of shaving gel that carry a little icon of a globe and promise "no CFCs." Even giant Wal-Mart has an "Earth friendly" section of its Web site, offering organic cotton clothing, solar garden lights and energy-efficient appliances.
As Earth Day 2008 arrives on Tuesday, American consumers face a renewed outpouring of environmental marketing claims - boasts by companies that their products are everything from "100 percent natural" to "recyclable," "eco-friendly," "sustainable," "biodegradable," or just plain "green."
Along with these claims has come a new wave of environmental seals and certifications aimed at helping consumers sort the real from the hype.
Some of these environmental seals of approval - such as the U.S. government's "organic" label - are well-known and meaningful. But other green seals of approval are less helpful. Some cover only a few narrow criteria, without addressing other key environmental points. Others have been developed by industry groups with a vested interest in boosting their sales. In some product categories, there are even competing green standards put forward by different organizations.
The result? It can be almost as confusing to sort out the different green seals of approval as it is to sort out green product claims.
"It's kind of a wild, wild West out there, with this big jump to get on the green bandwagon," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist with Consumer Reports.
"There should be a big caution to consumers: Don't base your purchasing decision on some green dot unless you know what that green dot really means," said Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing.
This isn't America's first flood of environmental marketing. In the 1980s, companies were making so many misleading and confusing environmental claims that the Federal Trade Commission drafted a set of green marketing guidelines that were released in 1992.
Among other things, the FTC wrote that green claims should be specific - for instance, stating clearly whether the word "recycled" on a box of paper cups applies to the cups themselves or just their box.
But the FTC did not do much to enforce its own guidelines, according to Case. And consumer and corporate interest in green products waned - until former Vice President Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" drew attention to the threat of climate change in 2006 and sparked a new wave of environmentalism.
Consumer spending on natural foods, vitamins, body care and cleaning products grew by 28 percent to $22 billion between 2004 and 2006, according to Mintel, a market research group based in Chicago.
Companies rushed to publicize the green aspects of their existing wares or to launch new green items. The number of new consumer product launches tracked by Mintel that involved green claims shot up from five in 2002 to 328 in 2007.
TerraChoice, Case's company, tried to gauge the reliability of all these claims last November with a survey of about a thousand consumer products that made a total of 1,753 environmental statements.
The good news was that very few of the products - less than 1 percent - made outright lies about their environmental benefits.
The bad news was that nearly all the products committed more subtle forms of what TerraChoice called "greenwashing."
Some products claimed to be green based on one attribute, such as recycled packaging, without addressing other environmental problems such as toxic ingredients.
Others made claims that were so vague as to be meaningless.
Products touting themselves as natural were a particular problem since, unlike the term "organic," there is no government definition of the term "natural" outside of meat and poultry.
"We found some 'natural' products that were petroleum based," Case said. "I guess they consider petroleum a natural product. ... Personally, I think the term natural has been so watered down it may never have any meaning again."
"Sustainable" is an even newer marketing buzz word that doesn't have a hard and fast meaning.
"There are so many components to sustainability - protecting the environment, water resources, social responsibility and being a good neighbor, and having good quality and safety," said Linda Brown, executive vice president of Scientific Certification Systems, an Emeryville company that certifies whether products meet particular standards.
"Right now, because there is no standard, people can pick any aspect they want," Brown said, "and consumers don't really know what it means."
No dominant standard
Faced with this thicket of confusing claims, many consumers might welcome an environmental equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, a well-known endorsement of consumer products provided by the magazine of the same name since 1909.
But that's easier said than done. There are currently dozens of separate environmental seals and certification.
Some address narrow single issues, such as the federal government's Energy Star seal for energy-efficient appliances or the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council's seal for sustainably harvested wood.
But those two are just the tip of the iceberg of single-issue seals. For instance, a group called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative - started by the paper and timber industry - offers its own certification of wood products that is a rival to the FSC standard.
Meanwhile, other single-issue seals focus on issues as diverse as animal welfare, indoor air quality, pesticide residues, biodegradability, sustainable fisheries and sustainably grown flowers.
Then there are seals based on a number of environmental criteria. The best known multi-issue seal is probably the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard.
The LEED seal is awarded to buildings based on a variety of criteria ranging from energy efficiency to use of nontoxic materials. Nearly 10 percent of new commercial construction projects are now applying for LEED certification, and the council recently launched a program to certify residential construction, too.
Two other multi-issue certification programs are EcoLogo, a certification with roots in the Canadian government but currently managed by an environmental marketing firm, and Green Seal, an independent, nonprofit certification organization. They both have set independent environmental standards for items such as paints and cleaning products since the late 1980s.
But neither of those seals are exactly household words. So many companies don't see the point of spending time and money to get certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo.
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Meanwhile, some individual companies are creating their own seals that have the potential to confuse shoppers even further.
SC Johnson announced earlier this year that it is adding a Greenlist logo to bottles of Windex. To average consumers, Greenlist might look like an independent third-party seal of approval - but it is an internal environmental protocol developed by SC Johnson itself.
Environmentalists have praised SC Johnson for using its Greenlist protocol over the past decade to reduce the number of potentially harmful chemicals in its products. But they said that displaying the logo without explanation could be misleading to consumers.
"Why not be Green Seal certified?" said Deborah Moore of the Green Schools Initiative, a Berkeley nonprofit that helps schools make environmental purchasing decisions. "There is a certification out there and hundreds of products have it."
An SC Johnson spokeswoman denied trying to confuse consumers. She said the company had considered a third-party seal but found the application process could be overly bureaucratic. "We look at those seals and respect them, but in the case of Windex it didn't make sense," said Kelly Semrau, vice president of global communications.
Meanwhile, some retailers have also started getting into the act by trying to identify environmentally preferable products for their customers.
Home Depot launched an Eco Options seal for some of the products it carries last year. And last month Whole Foods Market created a category of Premium Body Care products that meet a higher standard than the other items they carry. For instance, the Premium products avoid about 250 ingredients that have been criticized as potentially harmful by health and environmental activists.
"We were getting feedback from consumers saying, 'We don't know what 'natural' is,' " said Jody Villecco, quality standards coordinator for the Whole Foods chain. "We looked at other standards, and there was really no agreement. So we decided that, as a retailer, we were in a quick and objective position to get this done."
Just slightly behind Whole Foods, the natural products industry is currently drafting its own definition of natural cosmetics and body care items. Then it will issue seals to products that meet the standard.
"We can't legally stop anyone from using the term 'natural,' but when consumers become aware there is a standard out there, they'll look at products more carefully," said Daniel Fabricant, vice president of the Natural Products Association.
In the short run, it seems like things may get even more confusing for the eco-minded consumer. Suppose you're seeking an environmentally friendly shampoo. Do you look for the EcoLogo seal, the Whole Foods Premium seal, the National Products Association seal or some other seal? Or do you try to wade through ingredient lists and company Web sites on your own?
"You have to know which seals actually mean something - which ones are independently verified," said Rangan of Consumer Reports.
In the long run, if consumer interest in environmental issues remains high, some of the confusion in the green-standards world may gradually sort itself out. Some experts say one model might be the federal government's organic food standard, which only emerged after years of debate.
But they doubt that we will end up with one single all-encompassing green seal of approval. Instead, they foresee the emergence of widely accepted standards on a range of different issues.
"Even though the U.S. environmental movement is pushing on 40 years old, it's still really early," said Heather Stephenson, co-founder of a Web site called IdealBite that offers environmental tips to consumers. "Every day some new piece of information comes up. Given that we're still learning so much, it's good to have experts in different fields directing labeling. But having said that, it's still really confusing to consumers."
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Behind the seals
Green Seal. Greenguard. EcoLogo. Eco Options... With the spread of green seals and logos, how can shoppers know which ones are meaningful? Consumer advocates suggest asking the following questions:
-- What does the seal actually mean? Does it address one environmental issue or a range of issues?
-- Are there published criteria that all products with this seal must meet?
-- Who develops and administers a particular green seal? Is it an independent third party like Green Seal, EcoLogo or the U.S. Green Building Council? Or is it a trade association or manufacturer with a vested interest in making their products look greener?
-- Was the standard developed through a public process, with input from independent scientists and environmental groups as well as from industry sources?
-- Consumer Reports offers more ideas about what makes a meaningful eco-label at www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/eco-good.cfm.
Help or hype?
Some examples of green claims found in Bay Area supermarkets that may be more confusing than helpful:
-- Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars are labeled as "100% natural" - but there is no government standard for what the word "natural" means except for meat and poultry. The list of ingredients in these granola bars is practically identical to a rival brand of granola bars that don't call themselves "natural."
-- Jennie-O Turkey Store ground turkey is billed as "all natural." The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that natural poultry can't have artificial ingredients or added color. However, it's legal for "natural" turkey to have been raised on a diet that included hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified corn.
-- Gillette shaving gel has a "no CFCs" label. That's factually accurate but irrelevant, since CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons, which damage the ozone layer) have been banned in the United States for nearly 30 years.
-- Simple Green all-purpose cleaner says it is nontoxic and biodegradable. But it also cautions "Do not dispose of... near storm drains, oceans, lakes or streams." And it contains some ingredients that have come under fire from environmental activists such as 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent that has been linked to reduced fertility in mice, according to Women's Voices for the Environment.
-- Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, offers a guide to many green seal and certification programs at www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/eco-home.cfm.
-- Good Housekeeping magazine ran a comparison in January of several common environmental product claims such as "natural," "sustainable" and "biodegradable." It can be found at www.scscertified.com/ecoproducts/PDFS/GoodHousekeeping_Jan08.pdf.
-- TerraChoice Environmental Marketing issued a report last November on "The Six Sins of Greenwashing," which is at www.terrachoice.com/files/6_sins.pdf
-- The Federal Trade Commission's guidelines about green marketing can be found at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/greenguides.pdf. The FTC also offers tips for consumers about green product claims at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/general/gen02.pdf.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle