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Consumer skepticism on 'green' labels rises

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Wal-Mart in Santa Fe is one of many stores that offers energy-saving LED lights for sale.

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LOS ANGELES -- To Marina Meadows, green may be the new white.

When she goes shopping, Ms. Meadows is often overwhelmed by a bevy of products touted as Earth-friendly, from dish soaps and bamboo-derived towels to eco-detergents and plant-based soda bottles.

But the Santa Monica, Calif., resident, 26, said that although she is willing to pay extra to help the environment, "Sometimes, I wonder if any of it's really green or if it's all a scheme."

Environmentalists and some consumers say many companies are making the products out to be greener than they really are, a practice they call greenwashing.

"If we allow companies to get away with exaggeration, consumer skepticism will become cynicism and they'll stop choosing green products at all," said Scott McDougall, chief executive of eco-marketing company TerraChoice.

Last year, TerraChoice counted 5,000 items in retail stores that claimed to be green, a 73 percent increase from the year before. But on every toy and 95 percent of home and family products, at least one eco-friendly claim turned out to be misleading or false, the company found.

Said Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, "Most companies are engaged in incremental tinkering -- symbolic actions without any real substance."

But no one can agree on what exactly makes a product green.

As a result, federal regulators have had difficulty setting standards on labeling. The Federal Trade Commission has a voluntary guideline for eco-advertising, but it is 20 years old. It is being updated.

According to a recent survey, 65 percent of consumers want a single seal identifying a green product, similar to the way beef is labeled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But for now, a swarm of companies issue green certification, endorsements, and labels for a fee.

One, EcoAd from EcoMedia, a division of CBS Corp., has earned the ire of some environmental groups. They complained to the FTC that CBS was being potentially deceptive when it sold green-leaf badges for advertisers to use in commercials.

"An Eco-label that promises advertisers a green image while telling them they don't need to do anything to earn that image is the very definition of greenwashing," Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health, said in a statement.

Nearly 40 percent of consumers said they rely on labels, according to a report from the eco-marketing company Shelton Group. "Many don't trust manufacturer motives, but they end up making a decision at the shelf based on the packaging, usually just buying the brands they've always bought," said Suzanne Shelton, group chief executive officer.

Consumers are regularly met by a vast array of vaguely defined green catchphrases such as "natural," "clean" and "organic." Even manufacturers often don't know the difference between designations such as "compostable" and "biodegradable," researchers said.

Biodegradable goods break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass over time. Compostable items do the same while also releasing nutrients into the soil, which can be good for growing plants.

"Companies don't really understand the science behind it, and they don't question it," said Steven Mojo, executive director of Biodegradable Products Institute, a testing group. "They think that their packaging or product is somehow going to magically disappear in a landfill."

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