Message in a Water Bottle

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

Message in a Water Bottle
Carbon offset claims under scrutiny

Last month we discussed the growing practice of greenwashing and the FTC crackdown on retailers for making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about how their products benefit the environment.  Thank you to those of you who wrote with questions about the FTC Green Guides and how to avoid claims that could be subject to FTC action or legal recourse.  Several readers commented on "biodegradability" claims on caskets and asked for more examples of misleading claims that we can learn from.

Some concerned readers asked if we should avoid "green" claims altogether.  We need not avoid making claims about products and practices that benefit the environment as long as they are true.  Given the growing concern for the environment among Americans it is a good idea for any business to find ways to be more environmentally conscious.  The issue with greenwashing is not that "green" claims should be avoided, but rather that any such claims should be clear and substantiated.  It's a matter of being both helpful and honest--two things professionals in the funeral service industry are generally very good at being.

One green topic that's becoming part of American vernacular is carbon counting.  Marketers use many terms including carbon offsets, carbon neutral, carbon negative, and carbon footprint in claims about benefits to the environment.  These carbon-related terms illustrate the scientific concept that all activity on the planet can be classified as either releasing carbon or sequestering carbon.  We can explain carbon sequestering with high school chemistry.  As a tree grows it uses energy from the sun to change carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere into wood.  Wood is an organic compound that contains carbon.  Conversely, photosynthesis stops when a tree dies.  The wood in the tree decomposes (or is burned for fuel) releasing carbon back into the earth's atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.  A living tree sequesters carbon.  When we turn a tree into furniture or flooring, the tree does not decompose thus it continues to sequester carbon.  There is much science in the relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere and climate change--too much science to explore here today.

Carbon offsets occur when the carbon releasing activities used to make a product are matched with carbon sequestering activities, thus offsetting the effect.  Variations include claims to be carbon neutral or carbon negative.  These claims suggest there is as much, or more, carbon sequestered as released so the net impact of the product is neutral or negative.  These claims are difficult to substantiate due to the wide range of methods used to measure carbon impact and varied opinions among the scientific community as to the validity of these different methods.  Without scientific evidence these claims could be in violation of the proposed Green Guides.  The evidence to substantiate a claim that a product is carbon neutral requires extensive cradle-to-grave analysis of every component of that product and every step involved in the manufacture, transport, and storage of that component.  No product can be carbon neutral, or negative, without carbon offset activities that sequester carbon.  The most common carbon offset activity is planting trees, but it's difficult to substantiate exactly how much carbon is offset.  The carbon sequestered by a tree varies by species, climate, soil type, and the life expectancy of the tree.  

Consider the scrutiny experienced by Fiji Water Company since it began marketing its bottled water with green messaging in 2007.  The company's "carbon negative" campaign is the target of a class action lawsuit filed in January 2011 alleging the claim amounts to false and misleading advertising.  Fiji's claim to produce "the worlds' only carbon negative bottled water" is printed on the product label.  The largest component in the company's initiative to green its image is derived from the purchase of carbon offsets.  At the center of the lawsuit is the fact that the purchased offsets are future impact--extending the "negative 20 percent" carbon impact out to 2037.  But consumers of the product don't see that on the bottle--the label suggests that each bottle of water is carbon negative at the time it's produced.

Consider a very different claim made by Ozarka that boasts "Doing More With Less" on its bottled water.  The label reads:

"Did you notice this bottle has an Eco-Slim cap? This enabled us to reduce the amount of plastic!  Now this bottle and cap contain an average of 40% less plastic--making it the lightest 500 mL bottle we've ever produced.  Be Green."  

Ozarka's claim specifically identifies the product component and substantiates the claim with a measure that is neither misleading nor deceptive.  The message concludes with the simple directive to "Be Green" avoiding altogether use of words suggesting the carbon impact, biodegradability, or toxicity of the product.  The consumer must conclude that "less plastic" is a good idea.

At the Northwoods Casket Company we avoid direct claims of carbon neutrality, or carbon negativity, and simply state that we plant 100 trees for every casket we build.  We let the families who support us recognize that planting 100 trees is a good idea for the environment.  As for being truthful, we maintain documentation and testimony to substantiate our tree planting initiatives.  While planting 100 trees for every casket we produce just might make our casket the greenest on the planet, we won't make such a claim until we have the scientific evidence to substantiate it.