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Doug Krizner: Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission began public hearings on guidelines for environmental advertising. They haven't been updated since 1998. Now since then, more companies have been marketing themselves as "green." This has the FTC concerned about deception.
Marketplace keeps an eye on greenwashing through a team of online critics called the Marketplace "Greenwash Brigade." Our sustainability reporter, Sarah Gardner, caught up with a couple of them.
Sarah Gardner: You know we're in trouble when the experts are confused, too.
Janne Flisrand: I am a very educated consumer, and I struggle with these choices on a day-to-day basis.
That's Janne Flisrand, a green housing advocate. She's on our "Greenwash Brigade," looking out for eco-deception and fraud.
Flisrand says right now, there's a rush of products claiming to be green. She'd like the FTC to come up with something like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Flisrand: And I like the idea of a score, where the lower the score is, the less environmental damage there is created.
Flisrand suggests the scores might cover everything from greenhouse gas emissions to toxicity to labor standards.
Flisrand: But something simple that's quite comprehensive and that consumers can understand is key.
The FTC will specifically tackle carbon offsets. That's where consumers pay others to reduce greenhouse gases if they can't themselves. But some offsets have turned out to be scientifically suspect, or even outright frauds. And the offsets often occur in remote places where consumers can't verify them.
Greenwash Brigade member Heidi Siegelbaum says offsets are dangerous territory for eco-neophytes:
Heidi Siegelbaum: Unless they do a tremendous amount of studious research, it's very difficult to understand what it is exactly that you're buying. And of course, there's also the additional allure of offsetting guilt.
The FTC has its work cut out for it. Even our Greenwash Brigaders don't agree on whether the agency should craft a working definition of "sustainable." Flisrand says yes, Siegelbaum says no.
Siegelbaum says sustainability means different things in different contexts. And so it's different for every industry -- including the news business.
From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, I'm Sarah Gardner.