We all hate being lied to. Even more so when it’s about something as serious as the climate emergency and our shared environment. As more people worry about these issues, companies have caught on. But many big corporations aren’t actually making sustainable products — instead, they’re wielding misleading marketing to dupe conscientious consumers.
Some companies are actually operating sustainably by using responsible farming methods and bringing real climate solutions to the table. But these smaller companies already face highly concentrated markets dominated by a handful of players — and now, they have to compete against massive corporations pushing dishonest advertising.
These corporations are falsely claiming they’re just as sustainable, while still using the same cheap, extractive, and polluting practices they always have. This is especially true for two of the most polluting industries in our economy: industrial agriculture and fossil fuels.
We have federal agencies that should help prevent companies from lying about their environmental credentials. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can specifically target claims like “sustainable” in their Green Guides. The FTC designs these Guides to prevent marketers from making misleading environmental claims.
This year, as the FTC prepares to update its Green Guides, we’re calling on the agency to correctly define claims like “sustainable” and hold companies accountable for greenwashing their harmful products and practices. We’re working to ensure that we can trust what companies tell us — and support the truly sustainable ones.
Here are three greenwashing ploys the FTC and its Green Guides can tackle:
1. The Misleading Claims of Factory Farms
Many companies that we know are terrible for the environment are branding themselves as good for it. Those include bad actors like Smithfield, about which we filed an FTC complaint in 2021.
In other words, the meat, poultry, and dairy coming from factory farms are the opposite of “sustainable.”
Yet, Smithfield claims that its products are produced sustainably. The company brags about its supposed environmental stewardship. Moreover, it greenwashes its work in the polluting factory farm gas industry.
Smithfield claims that factory farm gas turns the massive amounts of manure it deals with daily into a well-managed source of “clean” energy. But these claims ignore the fact that its facilities continue to pollute the environment and harm their neighbors. In fact, Smithfield could avoid much of its pollution in the first place by using actually sustainable practices. Instead, it’s doubling down on factory farming.
2. The Failed Promises of Carbon Schemes
Carbon emissions are sometimes described like a piggy bank: as though we can put some in and take some out, so it all evens out in the end. This has led to a variety of schemes that companies claim will help lower or offset their emissions.
But in the case of carbon offsets, many programs are scams that don’t fulfill their promises of emissions reductions.
For example, a recent investigation showed how more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets approved by Verra — ”the world’s leading carbon standard” in the voluntary offsets market — are likely “phantom credits” that don’t actually reduce emissions.
Another study of hundreds of offset projects showed that the industry suffers from systemic over-crediting and dubious carbon offsets. The result: many companies are making bogus claims of helping to fight climate change.
At the same time, some companies are touting carbon capture and storage projects. This technology purports to take emissions out of the atmosphere. In reality, though, it has failed again and again to meet promised emissions reductions.
Despite this, companies like the ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland are claiming that they’re “supporting a low-carbon future” with their investments in carbon capture.
3. The Myth of Plastics Recycling
It’s becoming more apparent than ever that plastic recycling doesn’t work. It’s too expensive to be economical, and as a result, our plastic recycling rate has never reached even 10%.
But the fossil fuel industry has known this for decades. Even worse, it intentionally misled the public and promoted the myth of recycling. Big Oil executives know that “selling recycling [sells] plastic.”
To that end, the industry has deployed aggressive marketing and lobbying to push this myth. For instance, it lobbied to get the triangle-shaped recycling symbols on plastic packaging. But the symbol doesn’t reliably tell us whether that container gets recycled. It’s vastly more likely to get tossed in a dump.
The recycling symbol misleads consumers into thinking plastic consumption is less harmful because of recycling, or that the possibility of recycling makes a package “sustainable.” But widespread plastic recycling is a myth, and the plastics industry remains a threat to public health, the climate, and the environment.
We Can Stop This Greenwashing and Help Consumers Make Informed Decisions
As people who care about our environment and health, we all want to minimize our impact. But corporations are making it impossible for us to make informed decisions as consumers. They’re hiding behind dishonest sustainability claims and bad-faith marketing strategies.
From promoting climate boondoggles like carbon offsets to bold-faced lying, corporations muddy the waters for conscientious consumers, and they profit from our confusion. In doing so, they also make it harder for truly sustainable companies to stay afloat.
The FTC has the power to tackle these problems. When it revises the Green Guides this year, it must properly define claims like “sustainable” so consumers actually know what they’re supporting. The agency must also hold food and fossil fuel corporations accountable for misleading their customers.
With your help, we can fight corporate greenwashing! Tell the FTC to rein in deceptive marketing.