7 Billion Shades of Green

Green Graphic & Packaging Design


Have you ever selected a product over its compatriot simply because it is seems, or perhaps even touts, being “green?” How about eco? Biodegradable? Organic? Remember ozone friendly? If you’re at all like me then you likely have. Lately though, I have become very skeptical about what is truly good for the planet and it’s now 7 Billion people (yep, happy 7 Billion on Earth week!).

With eco-packaging market estimated at nearly $110 Billion, according to VisionGain’s The Sustainable and Green Packaging Market 2011-2021 materials report that was released earlier this year, I’ve grown more wary about what would drive companies’ motivations for selling green products. What packaging is actually healthy for the planet versus the ones that are status quo and have just undergone a brilliant greenwashing campaign? Along with the exponential growth of green-esque labels on shelves, it has all become more confusing.

A green light at the end of the tunnel

I was with much anticipation that I read through the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) newly revised  “Green Guide” about the definition of green labels. The FTC now regulates the use of certain key terms on product labels. This should help all of us get a better handle on what is really the right shade of green when it comes to packaging labels.

Here’s a redux of the FTC report from the 7Gen Blog:

  • General environmental benefit claims (i.e., “eco-safe,” “environmentally-friendly,” etc.) now have to be substantiated with concrete reasons that address likely consumer interpretations of the claim. For example, an “ecologically-sensitive” cleaner would have to explain that this means it creates no toxic fumes, won’t harm living things when used, or won’t pollute water supplies when rinsed down the drain.
  • Biodegradable now means that a product is backed with solid scientific evidence it will completely break down into elements found in nature within a reasonably short time frame following customary disposal methods. If, for example, the product is typically going to end up in a landfill, it must quickly and completely decompose into natural substances under those specific conditions.
  • Compostable can refer to only those products or materials that break down rapidly in a typical home compost pile into soil-conditioning materials you can safely use in your garden. If the product will compost only in a commercial facility maintaining strict conditions, that qualifier should be mentioned. If it won’t do either of these things, you can’t call it compostable.
  • Recyclable finally means what it should: that the entire product or package can be processed through an established recycling program. If the item isn’t one that recyclers will actually accept, it can’t be declared recyclable. If your product or package contains a mix of recyclable and non-recyclable components, you have to say so.
  • Recycled content can only refer to materials that would have otherwise been thrown away but instead have been rescued for reuse either during manufacturing (pre-consumer) or after consumer use (post-consumer). Companies must be able to substantiate the implied contention that any pre-consumer materials would not have been recycled anyway. And unless the entire product or package is made from recycled content, an explanation must be provided.
  • Source reduction claims must be explained. You can’t say your product creates “10% less waste” or is “10% less toxic” without specifying what it’s being compared with.
  • Refillable means that there is an official system in place to collect and reuse the container or that the manufacturer sells a bulk size of the same product, which can be used to fill the refillable container.
  • Ozone-friendly claims or suggestions can only be made for products that are a) 100% free of any and all substances recognized by the Clean Air Act or the EPA as ozone-killers and b) contain no substances (like VOCs) that create ozone at ground level. This means you can’t say your product “contains no CFCs” if it uses HCFCs instead because HCFCs can also harm ozone.

Note: FTC excerpt is directly quoted from the 7Gen Blog published in October 2011 by Inkslinger. Image courtesy of Flickr CC @girlingearstudio.