Could Biodegradable Caskets and Urns be Subject to FTC Scrutiny for Greenwashing?

In the fifteen years since the opening of America’s first modern green burial cemetery at Ramsey Creek, South Carolina in 1998, there hasn’t been a month with as many headline news articles from major news outlets on the topic as there were this past March.  The Green Burial Council estimates that as many as a quarter of America’s aging want a nature-friendly burial absent of concrete burial vaults, steel caskets, and formaldehyde embalming chemicals.  The NFDA hosted a workshop entitled, "It’s Only a Matter of Time: Are You Ready for Natural Burials and Green Funerals?” for funeral directors attending the annual convention in Austin, Texas last October.  Some funeral directors, including Amy Cunningham of Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services, say the time is now with one quarter of their clients prearranging green funerals.

Biodegradability is the most asked about aspect of green and natural burial alternatives when we receive inquires from families by phone or email at the Northwoods Casket Company.  The Green Burial Council has certified more than twenty firms who market green burial products including caskets, urns, and burial shrouds.  While the 2011 GBC Standards/Eco-Rating system for funeral products never cites the words biodegradable or degradable, nearly every marketer of green burial caskets, shrouds, or urns cites biodegradability as one of their key claims for eco-friendliness.

The October, 2012 update to the FTC Green Guides includes specific guidelines for using the word degradable or any of its derivatives when marketing green products.  The guide specifies that a degradable product must completely decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.  Any degradable claim for items customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities are deemed deceptive because these disposal environments do not promote decomposition within one year of disposal.

The guides were open for public comment for two years before the 2012 update.  Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company, commented on the new language for degradable in the proposed update.  She explained that caskets and urns customarily disposed in cemeteries are not likely to degrade (return to their natural elements) in one year as the law now requires.  Marketers of green funeral products use degradable to differentiate from non-degradables such as steel caskets, concrete burial vaults, and urns made from metal or ceramics.  Cynthia Beal stipulated that use of the word biodegradable in this context does not mislead consumers.  The FTC did not adjust the content of the Green Guides to further specify, or make an exception for, funeral products customarily disposed in cemeteries.

What, really, is the relevance of biodegradability in funeral service products?  An accelerated return to its natural elements does not necessarily make any given burial choice greener, or better for the environment, than another.  As a matter of science, the argument is that decomposition, which releases carbon dioxide into the soil & atmosphere, should be slowed and not accelerated if we aim to reduce the degradation of our environment.  Nonetheless, claims of biodegradability are only meant to discern those funeral products that are degradable from those that are not.  However, the FTC Green Guides of 2012 could scrutinize marketers of natural burial caskets, urns, and shrouds for being in violation of the law for using the word biodegradable to describe their products!

Natural burial has shifted from trendy topic to modern movement in the United States just as it did almost a decade earlier in the U.K.  As more consumers research green[er] funeral options and make inquiries for eco-friendly alternatives to the conventional funeral, we should expect scrutiny from the FTC.  The funeral industry has not yet been the subject of FTC scrutiny for greenwashing, but that could change.  Funeral service has been in the crosshairs of the FTC before—recall The Funeral Rule.  Let us keep in mind that the FTC’s primary concern is protecting consumers from deceptive marketing.

What should we do?  Biodegradability is a great conversation starter with families interested in green funerals.  As funeral service professionals, we should be prepared and address this talking point transparently to avoid accusations of deceptive marketing.  We should explain that in a conservation cemetery where the casket is in direct contact with the soil, the availability of moisture and organic bacteria create prime conditions for rapid decomposition of wooden caskets or urns, and shrouds made from natural fabric.  By contrast, the same wooden casket or urn "customarily disposed" in a sealed concrete vault in a cemetery will not degrade rapidly.  There are creative alternatives in a conventional cemetery that can accelerate decay, but in my experience, the family is more interested in environmental conservation than accelerated decay.  It might be time to shift the conversation.

What is better for the environment?  Biodegradability [of casketed human remains] is hardly relevant to the preservation of our natural habitat.  We professionals should take the opportunity to explore other topics far more relevant to “being green” in funeral planning.  Talking points such as carbon footprint, sustainability, toxicity, pollution, and local-sourcing are far more interesting than biodegradability.  Furthermore, these talking points are more easily aligned with an individual’s core values and can better aid families making decisions, especially when choosing between burial and cremation.