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Biodegradable? Or Bio-Humbug?

August 02, 1992

Responding to heightened consumer awareness about environmental problems, more and more companies are touting their products as "environmentally friendly." Too often though, consumers are discovering that these claims are bogus.

New guidelines released Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission should settle some of the disputes between businesses and consumer groups over claims that certain products are "recyclable," "biodegradable" or "CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) free." According to the rules, the term biodegradable should mean a product will "decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period" after disposal. That would prevent manufacturers of trash bags, for example, from claiming their products break down quickly when in actuality they typically remain in landfills for years.

The FTC also announced consent agreements between the government and eight companies that were charged with making false or unsubstantiated environmental claims in the marketing of their goods. In one instance, a cleaning products firm labeled some of its stock as "Ozone Friendly" when, in fact, it contained ozone-depleting CFCs. By consenting to the charges, the companies did not admit violating the law; however, they were warned that future infractions could result in civil penalties of up to $10,000.

The new guidelines represent a sensible middle ground in environmental regulations, and business has been receptive. Deceptive or fraudulent claims not only put responsible corporations at a competitive disadvantage, they undermine consumer confidence.

Most companies probably will fall into line with the FTC directive. However, the new policy must not be seen as an instrument to circumvent state truth-in-advertising laws, which in some cases go further than the federal guidelines.

It's apparent that most U.S. consumers want environmentally clean and biodegradable products. Increasingly, companies will realize that a strong bottom line is likely to be tied to an honest line on how their products affect the environment.

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