Does â€œnaturalâ€ mean organic? Should you buy anything labeled â€œnon-toxicâ€? Here are the truth and eco-facts about many of the green terms you find on product labels.
Whatâ€™s really green? Soon youâ€™ll have a little more
confidence about green product marketing claims, such as â€œbiodegradableâ€
and â€œrecyclableâ€: The Federal Trade Commission, which sets standards
for the use of environmental claims in its Green Guides, is getting
tougher on green terms.
Proposed revisions to the Green Guides will make it harder for companies to make unsubstantiated green claims about their products.
So when is all this happening? An FTC official we spoke to says the revisions may be final this summer. Until then â€” and even after then, since the guides donâ€™t have the force of regulation â€” put on your skepticâ€™s hat when you shop and be prepared to research labels before you buy.
1. â€œOrganicâ€: a green term that really means something
Organic is the one term in our list thatâ€™s federally regulated â€” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to be specific. Product makers making this claim must prove their stuff is "produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation, or bioengineering." Period.
FTC is cracking down on these terms
2. â€œRecyclable.â€ After the new guidelines are adopted, a manufacturer can use this term without a caveat only if a substantial majority of communities nationwide have facilities that can actually recycle its product. Before you buy, do your homework to see what youâ€™re able to recycle locally. Also, take a closer look when a product claims to be â€œrecycledâ€ (a term thatâ€™s not covered in the Green Guides).
What you really want to look for is "post-consumer recycledâ€ content. These products have been diverted from the landfill, so you're truly helping reduce the waste stream when you buy them.
3. â€œBiodegradable.â€ When you see this term, you think, "Great, I donâ€™t need to worry about throwing this away; itâ€™ll break down naturally." But many products labeled biodegradable need ideal composting conditions to break down â€” and some wonâ€™t degrade even then.
The FTCâ€™s new guidelines require that products or packaging labeled "degradable" break down within a year in normal disposal conditions.
Heads-up: That means the term likely wonâ€™t apply to anything youâ€™d throw in the trash, because items simply donâ€™t degrade in landfills. Itâ€™s far better to reduce waste in the first place than to expect it to disappear.
4. â€œCompostable.â€ In the future, products with this claim shouldnâ€™t take any longer to break down than the rest of your compost pile.
5. â€œNon-toxic.â€ The FTCâ€™s new guidelines say that non-toxic claims should mean the product isnâ€™t harmful to humans and safe for the environment. But research the product online if the label is vague. And definitely don't assume kids or pets can ingest it safely.
The fuzziest green term of all
6. â€œNaturalâ€ is unregulated by the government. Itâ€™s not interchangeable with organic or healthy, although manufacturers want you to think if itâ€™s natural, it has to be good for you, right? Not so much. Take ammonia. Itâ€™s a naturally occurring compound, but it's also a toxic pollutant. Without context, the word natural doesnâ€™t mean much.
A label to help you decide
When youâ€™re just not sure about a productâ€™s claims, look for certification by a reputable third party â€” like Scientific Certification Systems.
Its green-and-blue SCS label provides some reassurance that a product lives up to its claims. SCS sets tough standards for the terms biodegradable and recycled content, according to BuildingGreen, an independent company that educates building professionals on green certifications. And the label has been around a long time.
Some SCS guidelines: