What Does It Actually Mean For A Product To Be “Green” Or “Environmentally Friendly”?

When you see a product with the image of a smiling planet wrapped in green, leafy foliage and touting its “eco-friendly” quality, what do you think? Probably something like, “Oh, that’s probably good for the environment or can be recycled or something?” You aren’t alone in your confusion/generalization — even though the Federal Trade Commission updated its Green Guides for environmental advertising, plenty of people are still hazy on the whole idea.

The FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (or Green Guides) for advertisers, updated in October 2012, might’ve come too late to rescue consumers from the mire of vague marketing claims: The annual Green Gauge tracking survey (via AdAge) shows that the percentage of consumers who don’t know if companies’ environmental claims are accurate doubled to 22% between 2008 and 2013.

Even if we’re lost in a fog of planets and green leaves on packaging, the survey found that more than 40% of people don’t think those green claims are accurate, even if they don’t know exactly what those claims are supposed to mean.

The FTC has outlined terms like “non-toxic” and “recyclable” in an effort to help consumers steer through the eco-friendly waters, while simultaneously pushing marketers away from vague generalizations like “environmentally friendly” and those ubiquitous leaf images toward claims like “biodegradable.” In order to include any kind of claim in a product’s marketing or packaging, the FTC is busy ensuring that advertisers and companies can actually substantiate those claims with real facts, figures and scientific research.

If you want to figure out exactly what a product’s green label means, you can also use Consumer Reports’ handy Eco-Labels tool, parts of its Greener Choices initiative for expert evaluation of labels on food, wood, personal care products and household cleaners.

Consumers Don’t Believe Your Green Ad Claims, Survey Finds [AdAge]