Environmental claims in spotlight
Cleaners who fly “green” banners of one sort or another have been in the media spotlight on both the East and West coasts this winter.
While cleaners in Santa Monica, CA, were admonished for touting themselves as environmentally friendly, cleaners who do the same in New York were recognized as harbingers of a neighborhood on the upswing.
In Santa Monica, six drycleaners agreed in January to drop environmental claims in their advertising after a joint investigation by the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit and the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE).
The city’s investigation showed that the six cleaners did not have evidence to support eco-friendly claims such as “nontoxic,” “safe,” “environmentally safe,” and “environmentally friendly.” None of the six businesses could produce evidence to back their claims, the city said.
California law allows a city to demand that any business substantiate claims made in its advertising with hard evidence. The Consumer Protection Unit and OSE began investigating local cleaners last year after learning that many were making environmental claims about their drycleaning processes.
(Note: The original version of this story, based on information from the Santa Monica city attorney's office, said five of the cleaners are using hydrocarbon solvent and the other GreenEarth. We have since learned that the sixth cleaner, although a former GreenEarth affilate, is no longer using that solvent.)
While the city said that those solvents are likely to be safer than perc, it maintains that calling them “nontoxic” or “environmentally friendly” is misleading and unsubstantiated — and violates Federal Trade Commission guidelines.
“We’re glad these companies have started using less toxic chemicals, but marketing them as ‘eco-friendly’ just goes too far,” said OSE Director Dean Kubani.
“More and more consumers want eco-friendly products,” said Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky. “It’s big business these days. That makes it all the more important for consumers to be sure that the advertising claims are true.”
Meanwhile on the East Coast, a New York Times article asserted that the appearance of “organic” cleaners is a sign of a neighborhood on the upswing and a barometer predicting that “your rent is about to rise.”
Cleaners using words like “green,” “natural” and “organic” to describe themselves have “blanketed the affluent sections of Manhattan, from the Upper East Side down to TriBeCa,” the Times noted. “In recent years, they have crept farther afield, up to Harlem and out to places like Greenpoint and Bushwick in Brooklyn, joining the head-to-tail butchers and the boutique bike shops as an unofficial marker of gentrification in New York.”
The Times said that Internet search engines and user-review Web sites like Yelp show the highest concentration of “green” drycleaners in more affluent neighborhoods, especially in Manhattan, with a sprinkling throughout the five boroughs.
As drycleaners move away from perc in favor of other cleaning methods, many have embraced “green” marketing, the Times said. The article noted that although the Environmental Protection Agency does not believe that clothes cleaned in perc pose a health risk, the agency says the chemical has environmental risks and is a “likely human carcinogen.”
Proposed laws fail
Both the Santa Monica and New York city councils have looked at regulating environmental aspects of drycleaning in the recent past.
In 2009, Santa Monica City Council member Kevin McKeown asked staff to draft an ordinance that would limit drycleaners to using only nontoxic methods, which would essentially have made carbon dioxide cleaning the only possible method, but the council never took up the ordinance.
In 2010, New York City Council member Jessica Lappin introduced a bill that would have required cleaners who want to advertise themselves as “organic,” “green” or “environmentally friendly” to first meet certain criteria and obtain a $340 two-year license.
To qualify as an “eco-friendly drycleaner” and get a license, a cleaner would have to use liquid carbon dioxide or “biodegradable solvents.” Under this scheme, a perc cleaner — or any cleaner for that matter — could qualify by having two or more of the following: recycling for water, hangers, plastic or other items used regularly in cleaning; using energy-efficient appliances or hybrid vehicles; participating in an alternative energy program; or engaging in other environmentally friendly practices as determined by the department of consumer affairs.
The bill had support from some in the drycleaning industry who dislike the “organic” signs that have sprouted in recent years, but environmentalists opposed the bill because it did not take a hard line against perc. The director of legislative affairs for the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs was also opposed, saying that the bill amounted to requiring the “good guys,” i.e., environmentally conscious cleaners, to obtain a license while other cleaners had no such requirements.
Lappin’s bill never made it out of committee.
The Federal Trade Commission has weighed in on environmental marketing claims with “Green Guides” aimed at helping marketers ensure that their claims are truthful and non-deceptive. The FTC published revised guides last year.
The guides caution against making broad, unqualified claims of “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly” because the FTC’s consumer perception study shows that such claims are likely to suggest specific and far-reaching environmental benefits.
“Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate,” the FTC said.
The guides say it is deceptive to represent a product or service as “nontoxic” without showing scientific evidence that the product or service is nontoxic for humans and for the environment. Those making nontoxic claims should “clearly and prominently qualify their claims to avoid deception,” the FTC said.
The guides, however, are just that — guides. The FTC could conceivably pursue enforcement under Section 5 of the FTC Act which prohibits deceptive acts and practices in or affecting commerce.
“A representation, omission, or practice is deceptive if it is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances and is material to consumers' decisions,” the commission said.
However the FTC sidesteps the use of words like “organic” and “natural” in its guides, saying it lacks sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance or wants to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules or guidance of other agencies.
“Organic” claims for textiles and other products derived from agricultural products are covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, the FTC noted. Those rules, however, do not cover the use of “organic” as cleaners have applied it to the cleaning processes.