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Beware of 'Green' Services, Products

Sensing demand for environmentally friendly products, the nation’s retailers have unleashed a barrage of green — from green banks and green power plants to green detergents and green garbage hauling. Legally speaking, however, the term “green” has yet to be officially defined. Nicole Kibert, an attorney at Carlton Fields in Tampa, equates “green” to “organic” of 10 years ago, before the Food and Drug Administration specified what constitutes organic. “The problem with the word green,” Kibert says, “is it’s just really generic.”

[Image: iStock]
Green standards may be on the way. The Federal Trade Commission is revising its standards pertaining to environmental marketing.

Gaida Zirkelbach, a technology and business attorney with Gunster in West Palm Beach, is already giving her clients a heads-up. She’s advising them that before promoting a product as environmentally friendly they need to be able to demonstrate that the claim is true. Zirkelbach thinks enforcement actions are imminent.

 “My guess is that the FTC, once these rules are implemented, will want to make examples of some companies.”
— Attorney Gaida Zirkelbach
In Florida, neither the Attorney General’s office nor the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has received enough complaints to warrant any action, but the threat of “greenwashing” — claiming a product is environmentally friendly when it really isn’t — is prompting the FTC to act. Citing a study by the National Marketing Institute, Zirkelbach says consumer spending based on environmental concerns totals $230 billion a year. Another report, by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, concluded that more than 99% of the 1,753 green advertisements it studied were either false, vague, unproven or misleading.

Brian W. Warwick, a consumer attorney based at The Villages community in central Florida, says existing truth-in-advertising laws encompass false green claims, adding that it’s difficult to show harm to consumers in such cases.

Judging by how long it took the Food and Drug Administration to define “organic” and how long it’s still taking the FDA to define “natural,” Warwick says he doesn’t expect a quick definition of “green.”

“The only way it will be regulated,” Warwick says, “is if it becomes important enough to enough people.”