Feb. 9, 2011
by: Asseth Evanie
S.C Johnsons have changed its labelling recently. For what reasons? Read full report…
The annual Public Reports of Racine’s S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. detail its good deeds.
A sample: 40% of electricity drawn from renewable energy; factory greenhouse gas emissions down nearly 32% since 2000; extensive disclosure of ingredients in home-cleaning and air-care products.
“Part of being a responsible company,” Chairman and CEO H. Fisk Johnson writes in the latest, 49-page edition, “is working hard to play our role in helping to solve the world’s environmental problems and, importantly, also helping those who buy our products make more responsible choices.”
But an ongoing, 2-year-old civil lawsuit accuses the 12,000-employee, $8 billion-a-year firm of deceiving customers with a key aspect of its “green” marketing. And recently proposed federal regulations also raise questions about the company’s eco-labeling.
At issue: the marketing of S.C. Johnson’s iconic glass cleaner, Windex, and its category-leading stain remover, Shout.
The fronts of their bottles feature prominent, green-colored labels with a leaf-and-branch graphic and the trademarked “Greenlist” insignia.
Greenlist is a rating system used to evaluate and reduce adverse environmental effects of chemical ingredients.
What the front labels don’t say is that the Greenlist insignia is conferred by S.C. Johnson itself.
That fact, or in some cases just the suggestion of it, appears far less prominently – on the back of opaque bottles and on the inside of clear bottles, visible through the Windex fluid.
Litigation pending in federal court in California and Wisconsin contends that S.C. Johnson is deceptively implying that Windex and Shout have been tested by a neutral third party and been found to be environmentally friendly.
“The Greenlist ‘seal of approval’ is nothing more than S.C. Johnson touting its own product,” say the complaints, which seek class-action status and financial damages.
The company denies its labeling is misleading.
“We are very proud of our accomplishments under the Greenlist system and we believe that we will prevail in these cases,” Christopher Beard, public affairs director, said in an e-mail.
S.C. Johnson holds a patent on Greenlist, and the system has helped the company achieve such results as eliminating nearly 48 million pounds of volatile organic compounds from its products in the last five years, Beard said.
And Greenlist in 2006 won an award from an Environmental Protection Agency program established to recognize innovative, pollution-preventing chemical technologies.
S.C. Johnson also says on its website that Greenlist was “scientifically reviewed” by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
Greg Schiefer, executive director of the group’s North American wing, said the society hasn’t formally reviewed Greenlist, although members of the group have heard presentations on the process at annual meetings and reviewed it in that sense. A reporter’s inquiry about the website statement prompted discussions between the society and company, Schiefer said.
“I think they’re going to modify that text, to be honest,” he said. S.C. Johnson is among about 15 companies belonging to the society’s “Global Partners” program, which the group’s website describes as “the premier level of SETAC support.”
But whether or not Greenlist is a good process – Schiefer joins the American Chemical Society and the EPA in praising it – there’s a question about how S.C. Johnson discloses its connection to Greenlist.
That’s a key issue in the litigation, and it could be a further issue for the company if revised regulations proposed in October by the Federal Trade Commission take effect.
Prompted by the increasing trend toward “green marketing,” the agency says the revisions would strengthen its guidance to help companies avoid misleading environmental claims.
Among other things, the proposed regulations say it’s deceptive for a product to imply it has been endorsed or certified by an independent third party.
To help illustrate that, the FTC describes a hypothetical paint manufacturer whose advertising features a “GreenLogo” seal and the statement “GreenLogo for Environmental Excellence.” For List of Green Products, you can visit MyCleaningProducts
Such an ad would likely imply that an independent third party awarded the seal, the FTC says.
If the paint manufacturer itself created the GreenLogo seal and didn’t accompany it with “clear and prominent” language saying so, it would be deceptive, according to the proposed regulations.
Asked whether the Greenlist labeling complies with the revisions, Beard said S.C. Johnson has followed the current rules and will “welcome any guidance” the recent proposal provides.
The firm may need it – at least judging by the comments of three law professors who teach advertising law.
“Things like Greenlist were clearly on the FTC’s mind” when it proposed its new rules, said Rebecca Tushnet, a Georgetown University law professor. “In fact, Greenlist is a classic example of one of the practices they were concerned about.”
Under the proposed regulations, the Greenlist labeling probably would be considered deceptive, Tushnet said.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t expect Greenlist (labeling) to survive all that long, at least not in the form it is,” she said.
Rutgers law professor Ellen Goodman – who specified that she isn’t following the S.C. Johnson litigation – said in an e-mail that she didn’t think the company’s labeling provided “a clear and conspicuous disclaimer such that the reasonable consumer would understand that there was no 3rd-party endorsement.”
Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said via e-mail that he doubted S.C. Johnson’s labels would survive federal review under the proposed regulations.
“I think the FTC will be skeptical about consumers actually studying language that can only be read through the liquid contents of the bottle, especially where the initial “Greenlist” term is featured prominently on the front,” he said.
Within the last year, S.C. Johnson began using new wording on its back-of-the-bottle labels.
The original language the company used – and cites in legal briefs – reads, “Greenlist is a rating system that promotes the use of environmentally responsible ingredients,” followed by smaller type saying, “For additional information, visit www.scjohnson.com or MyCleaningProducts”
The back side of some bottles now says, “Greenlist: Our patented process to select raw materials with reduced environmental impact while maintaining high performance.”
The change in wording, which is being phased in, comes well after the lawsuits were filed but is unrelated to the litigation, Beard said. He said S.C. Johnson makes changes as it learns more through talking with customers.
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