Green Leaf Greenwash?: Letter to FTC Targets CBS EcoAds Program

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EcoMedia, a division of CBS, owns six pending trademark applications for the marks ECOAD and ECOAD (and Design) (shown above), for various services including fundraising for environmental protection and media and advertising services (see, e.g., ECOADS_85089838_App, ECOADS_85184033_App, and ECOADS_85184040_App).

Through its EcoAds program, EcoMedia allows advertisers to direct a portion of their ad dollars to local environmental projects such as energy efficient retrofits and renewable energy installations. When they do so, their advertisements display the ECOAD design mark.

Recently several environmental groups sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requesting that the agency investigate the EcoAds program, issue a warning to EcoMedia, and suggest revisions to the program (ecoad_letter).

The groups include the Center for Environmental Health, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, and Ecopreneurist.

The groups’ main concern is that the ads do not make clear to consumers that the environmental benefit signaled by the ECOAD design mark relates only to the funding of community environmental programs and is not necessarily connected to the advertising company or advertised product:

the EcoAd green leaf symbol appears by itself, without explaining that it simply means that money from the advertisement is funding community environmental programs. From the consumer’s perspective, the message is that either the product being advertised or the company who purchased the advertisement has some positive environmental attribute.

According to the letter, the EcoAds program in its current form violates the FTC Act and the FTC’s Green Guides by making “general environmental benefit claims” without clarifying when environmental attributes refer to a product, its packaging, or a service, as well as failing to include qualifying language about the nature of the environmental benefits associated with the ad.

The environmental groups have requested that the FTC suggest revisions to the EcoAd program such as adding text to each use of the ECOAD design mark to alert viewers that the logo does not specify environmental attributes of products or companies.

The groups also want CBS EcoMedia to develop criteria for evaluating advertisers and products for participation in the EcoAds program.

In my view the latter is not necessary because both the issue and the fix here are straightforward.

The key question is whether it is clear to consumers that the ECOAD design mark signals only that some of the advertiser’s dollars have gone to a local environmental project and says nothing about the advertiser’s products or business practices.

If there is some ambiguity which causes consumers to believe the advertiser itself or the product being advertised has environmentally friendly attributes, then the EcoAd logo may constitute greenwashing.

The solution is equally straightforward and requires no information about or evaluation of the advertising companies or advertised products: simply make EcoMedia prominently include with each advertisement a clear statement about what the ECOAD design mark signifies and what it does not.

Eric Lane is a patent attorney at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in San Diego and the author of Green Patent Blog. Mr. Lane can be reached at elane@luce.com.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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