When you go shopping, do you check to see if a product is good for the environment? If so, you’re not alone. Most consumers have chosen a product or chosen to pay more for one because it was certified as sustainable, natural, ecologically friendly or a similar term, according to a UL consumer survey.

But not every “green” label is created equal. Last September, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a warning letter to more than two dozen manufacturers and a handful of organizations behind certifying seals. The essence of their message: Stop being vague. Using general claims about environmental friendliness to sell products can amount to being deceptive, it warned. Better to specify exactly how the product helps the planet — if it in fact does — so consumers can make an informed buying decision.

“We are holding companies accountable for their green claims,” wrote Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, on the organization’s website.

Related: Alternatives to the “USDA Organic” Label: How Much Do They Mean?

Here are three hypothetical examples of deceptive labels and how the FTC suggests revising them:

1. Deceptive label: A company designs a “GreenLogo for Environmental Excellence” label and slaps it on its products without explanation.

Revised label: These words are added to the packaging: “We created the GreenLogo label for our products, because they meet XYZ standards for recyclability.”

2. Deceptive label: A company advertises its membership in the “EcoFriendly Building Association” without noting the association doesn't evaluate its members' products.

Revised label: These words are added to the packaing: “Although we are a member of the EcoFriendly Building Association, it has not evaluated this product.”

3. Deceptive label: A certifying organization issues a “Certified Non-Toxic” label to manufacturers in a certain industry if they meet certain quality standards. It doesn't mention manufacturers control how the standards are written.

Revised label: They add: “This seal applies standards developed by a voluntary consensus standard body. Although non-industry members comprise a majority of the certifier's board, an industry veto could override any proposed changes to the standards.”

Related: What Does “GREENGUARD Certified” Mean?

Some manufacturers may be new to the “green” industry and aren't yet familiar with the FTC's regulations for marketing green products. “They wind up making mistakes because they don’t understand what’s an appropriate claim,” says UL Environment Advisory Services lead Catherine Sheehy.

But others may be intentionally practicing greenwashing, defined by UL as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

Fortunately, the number of companies that practice authentic “green” policies is on the rise, according to Sheehy. “Manufacturers are being asked by consumers, by shareholders, by regulators and even their own employees what they are doing about environmental and social issues in their supply chains,” she says.

If you're shopping for a certain kind of product, find out what kind of ecological issues are attached to it. “Are you repainting a room? Do some research on paint,” says Sheehy. “You’ll find that volatile organic chemicals related to off-gasing are a top issue for that category.” She adds GREENGUARD is a reputable eco-label for paint.

You can also browse through UL's online GoodGuide, a searchable database of over 250,000 products rated for their health, environmental and social impact.

“As consumers, we are all voting with our dollars,” says Sheehy. “Greener products are often created by greener companies,” says Sheehy. “Chances are, those brands, those companies, will have other greener product lines.”

Related: Counterfeit Goods: 4 Ways to Avoid Buying a Phony Product Online


Like this article? Share it with friends by clicking the Facebook or Twitter button below. And don't forget to visit our Facebook page!

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.