Consumer and Environmental Watchdogs Charge CBS “EcoAd” Program with Deceptive Greenwashing

Oakland, CA-Consumer and environmental groups yesterday sent a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asserting that the “EcoAd” program recently launched nationally by CBS/EcoMedia is in violation of federal law and the agency’s “Green Guides” for environmental claims. In the complaint, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Friends of the Earth (FOE), and Jennifer Kaplan of Ecopreneurist told the agency that the CBS ad program, which offers advertisers the use of an “EcoAd” symbol “…may deceive viewers, provide CBS with an unfair advantage over its competitors, and create an unfair advantage for companies and products participating in the program.”

“The CBS EcoAd ‘digital green leaf’ is an eco-label that can be easily misinterpreted by consumers. We are concerned that CBS has failed to establish meaningful and verifiable criteria for the label and has a clear conflict of interest regarding who is eligible for the program,” said Kaplan, who had a lengthy phone conversation and email correspondence with CBS/EcoMedia division President Paul Polizzotto after she critiqued the EcoAd program in January. “Eco-labels that can be bought for the price of a TV ad threaten to further erode consumer confidence and diminish the value of legitimate environmental practices. If CBS fails to provide a clear explanation on each ad about exactly what the digital green leaf means and who gets to participates in their Eco-Ad program, their program is just more greenwash.”

In January, EcoMedia, a division of CBS Corporation, launched its “EcoAd” program, which offers advertisers a green leaf symbol with the text “EcoAd” displayed at the bottom of their ad. CBS calls the symbol a “green stamp of approval” available for use on its network, local television, radio, outdoor and online outlets. The network claims that the ads are a “sustainable media” effort, since a percentage of the revenue CBS brings in from EcoAds will be donated to local environmental projects.

In promoting the EcoAd program, CBS promises advertisers that by using the EcoAd seal, they can send “…a powerful message to viewers that the brand is committed to both the environment and the communities they serve.” But the EcoAd program is available to any advertiser, regardless of the companies’ or products’ environmental record or performance. As CBS tells potential advertisers in marketing the program, “Any ad can be an EcoAd.” CBS claims that it has developed and will “soon” post their criteria for evaluating companies that use the EcoAd symbol; but they also maintain that the use of the EcoAd label “does not imply any judgment” about environmental attributes.

“An Eco-label that promises advertisers a green image while telling them they don’t need to do anything to earn that image is the very definition of greenwashing,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “We urge the FTC to work with CBS to fix this broken program, which can only serve to confuse consumers and create cynicism about these bogus corporate environmental ads.” An independent survey released just last month found that Americans are unduly influenced by green marketing claims, with 57% saying they are distrustful of environmental claims.

Among the EcoAd “launch partners” in January were PG&E, the utility that supplies power from coal and nuclear plants and has a long track record of environmentally harmful practices (and whose Senior Director was recently caught trying to spy on consumer environmental health advocates), and Chevrolet, a brand of General Motors, which fights state vehicle emission standards, promotes climate change denial, and has a long track record of anti-environmental funding and lobbying.

“The issue here is simple: greenwashing is designed to distract people from the truth and reality of the grave situation we are facing when it comes to our environment,” said Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth. “We can’t buy into CBS’s fantasy — we’re just getting sold more junk ideas and products.”

In their letter, the groups asked FTC to investigate and warn CBS/EcoMedia about their non-compliance with the FTC Act and the FTC Green Guides, and to require revisions to the EcoAd program, including,

    a. The addition of text accompanying any use of the EcoAd symbol by advertisers, to clearly and prominently alert viewers that the symbol does not specify any positive environmental attributes of companies or products advertised;

    b. Development of criteria for evaluating advertisers and products for participation in the EcoAd program,including publication, public comment, and revisions based on comments; and

    c. Oversight by an independent, third-party auditor that can verify whether companies or products seeking to use the EcoAd symbol meet the criteria.

Read a copy of the letter to the FTC, here. For more information, see www.ceh.org

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