March 1, 2011

Our topic tonight is “Greenwashing”–the practice of businesses to make their products sound environmentally sound and ecologically “correct.” There’s lots of it going on as manufacturers and advertisers jump on the Green Bandwagon: gas guzzling cars surrounded by butterflies, industrial poisons described as feeding the world. The Federal Trade Commission has some regulations about greenwashing and truth in advertising called the Green Guides. These haven’t been overwhelmingly effective, and the FTC is in the process of attempting to strengthen them.

We read from an announcement prepared by Halimah Collingwood of the Mainstream Media Project in Arcata:

For the first time since 1998, the Federal Trade Commission is updating its Green Guides for environmental marketing claims. The Green Guides are meant to define terms and standardize claims made about a product’s impact on the environment. The Green Guides gives the FTC the right to prosecute businesses for misleading environmental claims under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The changes to the Green Guides come in response to the profitable surge of “green” marketing. Claims of “sustainable” and “carbon neutral” have entered the language but the FTC had no standard definition of these and other such terms. Some marketers have taken advantage of this lapse by exaggerating the eco-friendliness of a product – a practice known as “greenwashing.”

Here’s the link to  the FTC’s summary of the proposal:

Broadly, the proposals call for manufacturers to avoid making unqualified claims and making the qualifications explicitly; calls for cautious use of “certification” by other agencies and revealing the science behind the certification; limits the use of the terms “compostable” and “degradable” to materials that will degrade or decompose in a reasonable period of time; clarifies and limits the use of terms like “free of” and “nontoxic”; calls for identifying the source of any “renewable energy”; and clairfying and documenting any claims for carbon offsets.Halimah Collingwood concludes her Mainstream Media announcement:

It’s hard to quantify how much these corporate claims impact profits. From automobile to textile manufacturers, household cleaning products, and service industries like airlines and hotels, it is clear from today’s advertising that projecting an environmentally friendly picture is now considered an essential business practice. The FTC revisions may help separate fact from fiction.

How can consumers be sure what they’re buying has a low environmental impact? What would FTC guidelines mean for the development of the emerging carbon offset market? What else can consumers do to reduce their impact?

We’ll be asking our guests tonight those questions, first, Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy, in Madison, Wisconsin, then Pat Murphy of Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Listen to the Program

Our Conversation with Lisa GravesGraves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the publisher of PR Watch, SourceWatch, and BanksterUSA. She’s a graduate of the Cornell University Law School. Before joining the Center for Media and Democracy, she had a distinguished career in Washington engaging in a wide range of civil liberties and consumer issues. KZFR listeners had a chance to hear Lisa on Democracy Now, talking about the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, but tonight we’ll talk with her about Greenwashing.

  • Please tell us about the work of the Center for Media and Democracy. What’s your mission? How do you work? (What are your funding sources?)
  • You’ve worked on a number of instances of greenwashing and collusion, for example, the efforts of the American Petroleum Institute to shape public perception in advance of the Copenhagen conference. Please give us an example or several of the cases you’ve investigated. What tactics do businesses use to “greenwash” their products, especially in ways that are not immediately obvious to the consumer?

[We’ve been following Monsanto’s (recently successful) efforts to get approval for its GMO alfalfa and sugar beets. PR Watch has written about this. If you can give us any insights into Monsanto Greenwashing, we’d appreciate it.]

  • Earlier in the program, we read a brief summary of the new “Green Guides” being proposed by the Federal Trade Commission. Please give us your assessment of the Guides. Are they addressing key issues?
  • Are there any teeth in the Green Guides? any serious enforcement policies?
  • As an attorney and media activist, you can probably see loopholes and points of evasion in the new guides. Can you predict how business and industry will respond in terms of their advertising and product promotion?
  • What happens next to the Green Guides? How can interested listeners express their opinions? to whom?

More broadly, how can consumers best protect themselves and their families against greenwashing?Visit the Center for Media and Democracy at


Our Conversation with Patrick MurphyPat Murphy is Research Director, Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. It’s a nonprofit that advocates for small communities, living sustainably. He’s also the author of Spinning Our Wheels: The Failures of the Auto Industry and Government in the Quest for Lower Carbon Emissions and What We Can Do – Right Now – to Change Our Transportation System (2010).  

  • We know that you’ve studied greenwashing in a number of areas, but you have particular interest in the auto industry. We assume that greenwashing is only part of the failure of the auto industry and the government to lower emissions, but could you give us some examples of automotive greenwashing to get us started?

[We’ve looked up a few examples of auto ads ourselves, such as the Toyota Rav 4 Diesel, “The car nature wants to own,” with bunnies trying to to get a peek inside.]

[And the Prius ad where “nature” (pictured in black and white cartoon) comes into full-color bloom as the car passes, implying that the car actually fertilizes growth.]

[And Chevy Volt, declaring “Put simply, electricity is a cleaner source of power. And as technology improves in the generation of electricity, we will continue to see reduced carbon outputs. Advancements in electricity production along with reduction in emissions from electric-powered driving could help make our world a cleaner place,” which passes the buck to technological solutions.]

  • You’ve also studied greenwashing in other areas and have some criticism of the LEED certification that is widely advertised as green building. Could you tell us some of your observations there?
  • Earlier in the program, we discussed the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed new guidelines for truth in green advertising. What’s your appraisal of the guides? Will they change greenwashing in the auto industry? in LEED certification?
  • Obviously there is some consumer demand for cars that are greener. For buildings that are more energy efficient. Is this leading to a genuine change in the the construction and auto industries? Is consumer demand enough to provide real changes?
  • Please tell us about your work at Community Solutions. It sounds as if you are interested as much in change of lifestyle as in direct reduction of emissions. That is, if we simply drive less, we essentially bypass greenwashing.
  • Community Solutions is also talking about changes in housing and food patterns. Please explain how these all tie together.
  • What’s your vision of a (more or less) ideal sustainable community? in the city? in the country?

[The title of our show, Ecotopia, is taken from Ernest Callenbach’s utopian novel (1973) that calls for decentralization, localized food supplies, and small, cohesive communities.]

  • A question we often ask on this program is how significant change can come about. Will it require:

government regulation?

incentives to business and the population?

the planet being driven to the brink of destruction?

  • What can/should interested listeners do to bring about change in their own lives and communities? Other than Community Solutions, can you suggest some other resources?

Thank you, Pat Murphy of Community Solutions. They can be found on the web at [Note: That’s community solution singular–not solutions, which takes one to a different web site.]

On the Value of Community Radio Programming

As we close the show tonight, we want to take a moment to talk about public affairs and kids’ programming on KZFR. As a community radio station, we carry a number of broadcasts that are unique to our area and present local perspectives on a wide range of issues. For example, as you’ve probably heard, KZFR is now carrying interview excerpts from StoryCorps, the national oral history project sponsored by National Public Radio. The excerpt you are hearing on KZFR are produced in our studio and feature people from our region with stories to tell. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for a community radio station.

We’re also pleased to be a part of the original programming that makes this station unique. For example, Adrienne Scott’s Storyteller, coming up next, which brings mix of story and song from a multicultural perspective. Tonight, Adrienne will be visititalking about the Maasai Culture.  She has a great book called: 14 Cows for America.  A true story about the Maasai people’s gift to the US after 9/11. You can listen to Adrienne read this wonderful story on tonight.  She will offer some music and other information of the Maasai’s way of life. Children of all ages and lovers of traveling near and far are welcome to tune into this one-of-a-kind programming on KZFR.

We’ve been working with area teens lately to help create a revised Monday night “Teen Talk” program 6-7 pm. These next-generation broadcasters are tackling serious international and local issues, human relations problems, and looking at the role of art, especially creative writing, in people’s lives.

And there are many other original programs coming to you throughout the week: “Mama Rose’s Kitchen,” Diana Suzuki’s “One World Music,” Sharon North’s “Shattered Lives,” Laurel Avalon’s “Peace and Social Justice Hour,” Tom Resk’s “Monthly STroll,” and that Saturday morning favorite, The Point Is, with Sue Hilderbrand and Paul O’Rourke Babb.

No we’re not asking for pledges (though we will be doing that in a few weeks). Rather, we just want to emphasize and brag a little about KZFR’s locally produced community radio, unique to the Sacramento Valley, the foothills, and beyond.

Playlist: Ecotopia #126 Greenwashing

1. All The World Is Green        4:37        Tom Waits        Blood Money       
> 2. Karma Police        4:22        Radiohead        OK Computer
> 3. In the Blink of an Eye        3:32        Somasonic        Future                       
> 4. Education        2:41        Pearl Jam        Live At Lollapalooza 2007               
> 5. Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary        The Very Best of 
> Peter, Paul and Mary       
> 6. Beautiful Feeling        4:00        PJ Harvey        Stories From The City, Stories 
> From The Sea                       
> 7. The Mess We’re In        3:57        PJ Harvey Feat. Thom Yorke        Stories From 
> The City, Stories From The Sea