Greenwash: Hot Advice from a Pro

As somebody once observed, the heart of man is a wonderful thing, especially when it is carried in his wallet.

Same goes for the heart of a woman, of course.

To, wit, the latest issue of Advertising Age conveys the fabulous wisdom and morality of attorney Randi W. Singer, “litigation partner in the New York office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges,” whose “practice focuses on copyright and Lanham Act false advertising and trademark litigation, as well as media, music licensing, First Amendment and other intellectual property issues” on behalf of “the world’s most sophisticated clients.”

In a column titled “Going Green the Smart (and Legal) Way,” Ms. Singer writes:

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in a remote part of the ever-dwindling rain forest, you know that a sure-fire way to get consumers to pay more for your products even in these difficult times is to make some “green” claims. And if you can time your ads to coincide with events such as Earth Day or convince the federal government to expedite the review for your green technology patent all the better. Bonus points for naming an actual shopping day “Green Monday” or changing the color of your logo to green.

Of course, Ms. Singer knows “going green” doesn’t mean going green, even in narrow terms:

But before jumping on the green bandwagon, it’s important to do your homework. Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission issued complaints against Kmart, Tender Corp. and Dyna-E International for making false and unsubstantiated claims of “biodegradability.” On the heels of those complaints, the FTC went after a number of companies that claimed their products were green because they were made of bamboo when, in fact, they were made of rayon — a man-made fiber that is technically created from the cellulose found in plants and trees, but only after it is chemically dissolved through a process that releases various pollutants. (After settling with the manufacturers, the FTC followed up with warning letters to 78 retailers, including Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Target). S.C. Johnson & Son faces a class action suit alleging that placing a proprietary “Greenlist” seal on its Windex window cleaning products misled consumers into believing that the products were independently certified by a third party (the Greenlist was actually an S.C. Johnson-conceived program). And following review by the National Advertising Division, the advertising industry’s self-regulatory forum, Clorox Co. decided to voluntarily discontinue claims that its Green Works Natural Cleaning Wipes were biodegradable, and MasterNet was advised to stop making claims that its plastic netting packaging products “saved countless trees from destruction.”

So, “What’s a would-be green marketer to do?”

Keep making those “green” (in quotation marks) claims, but be careful, and know your corporate lawyer’s number!

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