“Greenwashing” and the Rise of Deceptive Trade Practice/False Advertising Class Action Claims

Greenwashing” involves misleading consumers concerning the environmental benefits of a product or service. In the “Six Sins of Greenwashing,” TerraChoice a marketing firm, studied over one thousand consumer products and concluded that all but one made claims that were demonstrably false or misled consumers. TerraChoice found that eco-marketers were guilty of what it described as the “Six Sins of Greenwashing,” which include:

  1. Sin of the Hidden Tradeoff
  2. Sin of No Proof
  3. Sin of Vagueness
  4. Sin of Irrelevance
  5. Sin of Fibbing
  6. Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils

Are companies that mislead well-intentioned customers into making purchases that do not deliver their promise subjecting themselves to class action claims alleging deceptive trade practice and false advertising? More than ever before, sellers of consumer goods are committing the “Sin of Vagueness” (for example) by claiming that their products are “chemical free,” “non-toxic,” “all natural,” or “environmentally friendly.” If a purchaser is induced to purchase a pesticide product because it claimed in advertising to be “chemical free” or “non-toxic,” and becomes ill, would a product liability claim be less difficult to prosecute?  More significantly, will the “Six Sins of Greenwashing” give rise to false advertising and deceptive trade practice class action suits?  In the absence of regulation concerning eco-marketing, what standard will courts hold consumer product sellers to in evaluating these claims. In general, product sellers can obtain guidance from:  (1) standards established by multiple private certification groups; (2) “Green Guides” issued by the United States Federal Trade Commission; and (3) ISO 14021 and ISO 14024, which provide standards on how best to communicate environmental product information. Voluntary adherence to any of these standards or guidelines will certainly not preempt a class action, but may provide credible defenses to these claims.