As awareness of the impacts of plastic pollution spreads, many companies are trying create alternatives products that won’t have the same environmental impact, but not all “green” alternatives are created equal. The marketplace has become increasingly saturated with products that are marketed with misleading, or all out false, environmental claims create an unfair advantage over the products that are truly recyclable or compostable. To combat this, California enacted a series of landmark Truth in Environmental Advertising laws which make it illegal to falsely advertise products with unqualified environmental claims, and California District Attorneys have made the enforcement of these laws a priority.
This week, the Monterey District Attorney announced a $1.5 million settlement resolving a consumer protection case against Amazon for selling and advertising plastic products that are misleadingly labeled as “biodegradable”. This settlement was a result of a complaint filed against Amazon in conjunction with 22 other California district attorney’s offices. The judgement prohibits Amazon from unlawfully selling or offering for sale any plastic products labeled “biodegradable”, or selling or offering for sale plastic products labeled “compostable” without the appropriate certification.
This settlement is part of a concentrated effort by a group of California district attorneys who have collectively pursued several high profile anti-greenwashing consumer protection cases in recent years. Recent lawsuits regarding illegally labeled “biodegradable” plastic products include a $1 million settlement with Walmart in 2017 and a $500,000 settlement with Costco in early 2018.
In 2011 the California Attorney General filed a lawsuit against ENSO Plastics, Aquamantra, and Balance Water, which had marketed PET plastic bottles combined with additives as “biodegradable”. That lawsuit resulted in the companies paying settlement penalties and the removal of their products from store shelves.
In 2017 the Alameda County District Attorney, along with 22 other California District Attorneys, reached a nearly $1 million settlement with Walmart and its subsidiaries regarding the sale of illegally labeled products that claim to be degradable.
In addition to the CA legislation, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides also expressly prohibit unqualified “biodegradable” claims. In 2013, the FTC took enforcement actions against ECM Biofilms, which marketed additives that allegedly make plastic products biodegradable, along with four companies that marketed their products as biodegradable based on the use of additives sold by ECM. Years after the initial complaint was filed by the FTC, a federal appeals court denied ECM’s petition for review and affirmed the FTC’s authority to enforce federal law regulating claims of biodegradability.
Getting the public to act on accurate and truthful environmental marketing claims is one of the most valuable tools we have to build a market for sustainable products and packaging, but this isn’t possible if consumers can’t trust what they read on product packaging. The announcement of the settlement with Amazon serves not only as a win for consumers and the environment, but also as a powerful statement that California has zero tolerance for greenwashing.