Greenwashing

Greenwashing is advertising intended to mislead consumers about the environmental benefits of a product or service. Companies engage in these deceptive marketing tactics to take advantage of consumers trying to improve the environment through their purchasing decisions.

Yes, under certain circumstances, greenwashing is an “unfair, abusive, or deceptive trade practice” that is prohibited by both Maryland and federal law. In Maryland, it is illegal for marketers to omit important information that a customer may rely on when making a purchasing decision if that omission could deceive or mislead customers. Likewise, federal law prohibits marketers from engaging in marketing tactics that are likely to mislead a consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances to the consumer’s detriment.

There are a number of statements that may constitute illegal greenwashing. More common statements include (1) unsubstantiated environmental benefits claims; (2) general and unqualified environmental benefits claims; and (3) overstating the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Unsubstantiated Environmental Benefits Claims: These are claims that are made without the advertiser verifying the statements’ truth or accuracy. “All reasonable interpretations” of a marketing claim must be truthful, not misleading, and supported by a “competent and reliable evidence.”

Unqualified environmental benefits claims: These are claims that fail to disclose important information to help the consumer understand the marketing claim being made. Statements can be qualified by identifying specific circumstances when a claim may be true or false, or by including information that limits the scope of a claim being made.

General environmental benefits claims: These statements typically involve a broad, sweeping environmental benefit claim that lacks any information contextualizing that claim. The Federal Trade Commission advises marketers against making such claims because it is “highly unlikely that all reasonable interpretations of these claims can be substantiated.” Such statements should include “clear and prominent qualifying language that limits the claim to a specific benefit or benefits.”

Overstating environmental attributes: These are statements that, directly or by implication, exaggerate the environmental benefits of a product or service. Typically, such exaggerated claims lack important information to qualify or contextualize the statement’s claims.

Comparative Claims: These are claims either directly comparing the environmental attributes of different products or services, or claims analogizing the environmental benefits of one product to the benefits of another. These claims “should be clear to avoid consumer confusion about the comparison” being made.

The prevalence of greenwashing makes it difficult to spot. But, there are a few signs that an advertisement may constitute greenwashing:

Vague, non-specific terms such as “green,” “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “clean.”

Selective disclosures—highlighting positive environmental benefits but omitting any reference to negative environmental effects.

Using natural imagery unconnected to the service or product being offered.

Unqualified emissions reductions claims, or quantified emissions reduction claims without a identifying a source of authority for that claim.

The Public Service Commission is the primary authority responsible for regulating marketing practices of utilities and retail energy suppliers. If you believe that a utility or retail supplier is engaging in greenwashing, you may file a complaint with the Public Service Commission.