CBS EcoAd Accused of Greenwashing in FTC Complaint

by | Apr 13, 2011

CBS is the target of a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), over the broadcaster’s EcoAd program.

Environmental groups Friends of the Earth, the Rainforest Action Network and Center for Environmental Health, along with news website Ecopreneurist, filed the complaint on Wednesday. They allege that EcoAd violates federal laws and the FTC’s Green Guides for environmental advertising claims.

The EcoAds, launched at the start of this year, recognize brands that sponsor environmental projects. These could include solar installations and refits of schools, affordable housing or municipal buildings. Every time an advertiser buys an EcoAd package, a portion of the price funds projects that public bodies have identified as critical yet underfunded.

The seal was developed by advertising company EcoMedia, which CBS acquired last year.

In the complaint, the environmental groups told the FTC that the ad program “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 groups say that the EcoAd program is available to any advertiser, regardless of their environmental record. They say that a number of EcoAd launch partners, including PG&E and Chevrolet, have poor environmental track records.

The complainants called on CBS to add text to EcoAds, alerting viewers “that the symbol does not specify any positive environmental attributes of companies or products advertised”.

“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,” CEH executive director Michael Green said. “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.”

“We can’t buy into CBS’s fantasy — we’re just getting sold more junk ideas and products,” Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica said.

CBS countered that all EcoAd commercials direct consumers to visit the EcoAd website, which it said clearly explains the methods, motives, and benefits of the program.

The website says, “A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each EcoAd goes to projects we believe will benefit the environment. EcoAd is not a certification program nor is the EcoAd logo a seal of approval. EcoMedia does not in any way certify, endorse or make any representations about EcoAd advertisers, their products or services.”

CBS said it has also committed to airing separate EcoAd announcements explaining the program, and the role of the logo, in markets where EcoAds run.

“Obviously I respect the environmental groups that have attempted to make our efforts better,” EcoMedia president and founder Paul Polizzotto told Environmental Leader. “I’m very, very proud of our work and I think we’ve been very clear about what EcoAds are and what they’re not.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the environment. It’s astonishing to me that the actual community from which I come is not coming to me first and saying, before we’re going to do this in the press… ‘Hey Paul, let us share with you some thoughts on how you might make your efforts even better.'”

EcoMedia also said that the EcoAd program has been endorsed by environmental leaders including former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council, members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Denise Sheehan of the Climate Registry.

In their letter, the groups making the FTC complaint asked the commission to investigate EcoAds and to warn CBS that it is not complying with the FTC Act and FTC Green Guides, which advise advertisers on sustainability claims. The Groups also called on CBS to develop criteria for evaluating advertisers, with compliance evaluated by a third-party auditor.

The FTC is currently updating the Green Guides. It has been taking actions against advertisers that it says use misleading environmental claims. In 2009, it charged Kmart Corp., Tender Corp., and Dyna-E International with making false and unsubstantiated claims that their paper products were “biodegradable.”

The commission also charged four companies — Sami Designs LLC, dba Jonäno; CSE Inc., Mad Mod and Pure Bamboo LLC and the M Group – selling clothing marketed as made from bamboo, with what the agency called deceptive advertising and marketing claims.

Last month a study released by communications agency Cone found that American consumers continue to misunderstand phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising – such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” – giving products a brighter halo than they may deserve.

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