Greenwashing in Funeral Service

This column originally appeared in the March, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

We can each help families steer clear of deceptive marketing in the death care industry.
 
Greenwashing” is the marketing practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product.  Because consumers increasingly seek green products – and are willing to pay more for them – it’s not surprising that instances of greenwashing are on the rise.  We in the death care industry can help educate and protect families from such claims by asking a few important questions. 

Consumers want to be good to the environment.  Consumers in today's global market are willing to pay a 5 percent premium for green products.  According to a Forbes public opinion poll last November, 83 percent of Americans expect companies to improve the environment as part of their business model.  Sixty-five percent of consumers said they would switch brands upon learning a company they patronize causes harm to the environment. All this represents a great trend, trusting the claims these companies make are true. But unfortunately for consumers, this isn’t always the case. Misleading claims about environmental benefits have begun attracting the attention the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and have become the subject of class action lawsuits.


Crackdown on Greenwashing
The FTC is cracking down on greenwashing Specifically, in June, 2009 the FTC ended almost a decade of silence on the topic when it charged three retailers for making deceptive and unsubstantiated biodegradability claims on paper products.  Kmart and Tender Corp immediately agreed to stop making such claims.  The third retailer, Dyna-E, came to a settlement agreement after three months in administrative litigation. In August 2009, the FTC announced another four enforcement actions against manufacturers for making unsubstantiated general claims to manufacture products in an "environmentally friendly process."  Through these actions, the FTC has made it clear that unsubstantiated claims will not be tolerated.


FTC Green Guides get an Update
Green marketing claims must be specific and transparent In the death care industry we’re familiar with the 1982 FTC publication the Funeral Rule (Funeral Industry Practices:16 CFR Part 453) and with its Funerals, A Consumer Guide, published in 2000. But did you know the FTC first published Green Guides in 1992 to ensure environmental claims made by businesses were true and substantiated?  We can expect an official update to the Green Guides sometime in 2012.  The main theme of the proposed updates is that unqualified general claims for environmental benefit are not allowed.  Claims must be specific and transparent.  For example, claims about renewable materials must be specific as to how that material is sourced and why it is renewable.  Other proposed updates clarify the use of vocabulary such as carbon offset, recyclable, compostable, degradable, ozone safe/friendly, and free-of/non-toxic when making claims. Generally, each of these claims must be specific and qualified with evidence.


Green Marketing in Death Care
How might the proposed Green Guides affect the death care industry?  With growing interest in Green Funerals and Natural Burials in America, marketers in death care are making claims for the environmental benefit of products and services including caskets, embalming products, concrete vaults, funeral coaches, stationary, flowers, and keepsakes. Crematoriums and cremation urn retailers have also made claims that their businesses or products benefit the environment.  The best thing we can do as funeral service providers to protect our families from such deceptive or misleading claims is to ask questions.  If a manufacturer claims to make a product in a way that benefits the environment, we should ask how.  The marketer is responsible for transparently substantiating such claims.  If we are confused, no doubt our families will be too, or worse, misled or deceived.  As more families ask for green alternatives in death care, it is in our genuine interest to better serve the families who trust us by being informed ourselves.


Claims for Biodegradable Products
Beware of biodegradable and degradable claims on caskets!  The FTC has specific language regarding the use of claims that products are degradable or biodegradable.  In order to use this claim, the product must "completely decompose in no more than one year after customary disposal."  While most natural burial shrouds and green caskets are made from materials that will decompose easily, it is unlikely that these products will "completely decompose in no more than one year after customary disposal." The trouble is that some states require burial of at least 18 inches, and in most climates this depth is below the presence of microbial bacteria that accelerate decomposition.  If customary disposal is interpreted as burial in a conventional cemetery that requires a burial vault, decomposition is slowed even more.  While it seems natural to tout green caskets as degradable, under the FTC’s definition this is hard to achieve and such a claim should be considered carefully.  As funeral service providers, we should ask questions of retailers who make this claim.

If you have questions pertaining to anything to do with green burial that might be good topics for this regular column, please send your suggestions to jonas.zahn@northwoodscasket.com.  If you have a story about a green funeral or something you're doing in your business to conserve resources or help the environment, please write me as I continue to compile a list of ways to "green the funeral industry" to share with you.