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The four biggest ‘green’ marketing scams

In greenwashing, as in life, there are seven sins. There's the sin of the hidden trade-off, for example, the sin of vagueness, and the sin of no proof.
/ Source: The Big Money

In greenwashing, as in life, there are seven sins. There's the sin of the hidden trade-off, for example, the sin of vagueness, and the sin of no proof. So says, which takes on companies that offer seemingly green benefits — often at a hefty price tag — with little results. As the green trend continues, companies in almost every industry vie for a piece of the green market, even the embattled General Motors has taken a chance on its own green product initiative.

But as the field of green products grows, so does the number of impostors. The following is a list of some of the most perplexing green products out there-and an assessment of just how scammy they might be:

Clorox "Green Works" products
Green Works launched a little more than a year ago, under the pretense of bringing eco-friendly home-cleaning goods, such as all-surface and window cleaners, to the mass market. Several of these products, however, contain corn-based ethanol, which the environmental community has targeted for being neither cost effective nor eco-friendly. Many items in the Green Works line also include sodium lauryl sulfate-which the company describes as a "coconut-based cleaning agent." That may be true, but, coconut or not, SLS has long been criticized by the scientific community for its not-so-natural effects; the American College of Toxicology described SLS as a known skin irritant in a report published more than 20 years ago.

A few of the wares in the line also contain synthetic dyes, which were included because of what Clorox Company representative Aileen Zerudo described as "consumer feedback."

"We tested products without fragrances and dyes," said Zerudo of the marketing research the company conducted. Turns out test subjects were put off by fragrance and dye-free formulas' resemblance to water, she said, and perceived them to be less effective. Perhaps, but Seventh Generation's "Free and Clear" line seems to be doing just fine.

While the creation of these products is a fairly transparent move to nab a spot in the increasingly popular "green" market, Clorox still managed to score endorsements from the EPA  for all the Green Works products at their launch-except the bathroom cleanser. Zerudo said it was recently added to the EPA's approval list, after the company agreed to remove glycolic acid from the formula.

What is most perplexing about Green Works, however, is that it was launched through a partnership between the Clorox Company and the Sierra Club, which receives an undisclosed sum for its association with the products (its logo is featured on the bottles), an unorthodox tactic for a nonprofit organization. These contributions are ambiguously defined (Zerudo is quick to point out that the Sierra Club in no way "endorses" Green Works), and the amount of money Clorox decides to donate to the Sierra Club yearly is directly "based on sales," she said.

Last fiscal year, the Sierra Club received $470,000 from the Clorox Company, according to Zerudo.

Clorox should be applauded for its transparency-it clearly labels all ingredients on the products and on its Web site. The company also deserves acknowledgment for altering their bathroom cleaner to meet EPA standards. But many of the active ingredients could be substituted for more environmentally sustainable ones. Compared with other green cleaning options, like do-it-yourself home cleaners, Clorox Green Works is hardly the best choice. Being the lesser of two evils is good — but only if it truly is less evil.

Clorox promises that this line is almost entirely "all-natural." But this term is relatively meaningless, as neither the EPA nor the FDA maintain a statute for what counts as a "natural" product-something that Zerudo acknowledged. For a step forward from harsh chemicals, Green Works is a decent bet-but for truly green home-cleaning products, stick with Seventh Generation.

ScamFactor: 4 out of 10

Gas-saving magnets
Blending the boundary between green and recessionary trends, these products promise to help you reduce your gas consumption through the use of a super powerful Neodymium Rare Earth magnet. Once clamped onto your fuel line, "this extremely strong magnet ionizes the gasoline, changing its molecular structure. By passing the fuel through a strong magnetic field, hydrocarbon groups or clusters are broken up, making the fuel easier to vaporize," says, home of the FuelMag1.

The Web site promises gas mileage increases of up to 20 percent-a seeming bargain when factored against FuelMag1's reasonable price: $29.95.

The downside? It doesn't work. At all. True, Neodymium is a very strong magnet. But that's about the only thing and their similarly minded scammers got right.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission brought a case against an analogous company, FuelMax, in October 2004. While FuelMax denied the FTC's claims, it eventually settled for $4.2 million  in 2006.

Why and other so-called fuel-saving companies are still in business is a mystery. These fuel line magnets and other magnet-utilizing products of that ilk are physically incapable of "ionizing" gasoline.

The gas-saving magnets are about as scammy as they come. There is absolutely no science to back up claims of their efficacy, and, as this article points out, the magnets' association has become so tainted that similar magnetized products are actually trying to hide the fact that they include magnets. All has to back up its pseudoscience is a feeble claim: "No Gimmicks, Schemes or Scams here at ... and that's a promise." We're not buying it, and neither should you.

ScamFactor: 10 out of 10

Sephora's "Natural Standards"
The green cosmetics trend is riding high, as Slate contributor Nina Shen Rastogi noted in a recent "Explainer" column. But behemoth makeup retailer Sephora has taken a particularly dopey approach to the trend with their "Natural Standards" initiative.

Filed under the heading "Naturally Gorgeous," Sephora's manifesto claims that products sold in their stores that bear a green seal meet "high internal standards" with "the purest, most efficacious ingredients Mother Nature has to offer." Sephora's site boasts more than 1,400 products from more than 30 different brands with the "Naturally Sephora" seal.

The Web site astutely observes that "the term ‘natural' is not regulated by the FDA," and thus they "created (their) own standards for the natural products at Sephora." You bet they did.

Turns out dozens of products Sephora considers "naturally beautiful" contain high levels of harmful chemicals and cancer-causing agents, according to the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database, which provides information on virtually every cosmetic company in business, listing their products' ingredients and ranking them on a zero-to-10 scale, based on the health threat they pose.

While this contradiction seems particularly ham-handed, it's difficult to believe that Sephora doesn't realize that many of its "green" products are anything but. After all, a cursory search reveals the truth about these products. Tarte's Vitamin-Infused Lip Gloss in "Liquid Sunshine" shade ranks a six at the Cosmetic Database, putting it nearly at the "high hazard" level. At  least 15 shades of CARGO's "PlantLove" lipstick line rank five on the hazard scale, putting them at a "moderate" level. While this score is certainly not any worse than a conventional product, shouldn't a line whose mantra is "Red Lips. Green Conscience" and whose packaging bears a promising green "natural seal" be better than conventional so-called nongreen makeup?

A Sephora spokesperson said that the company stands behind the line: "Our natural brands are committed to ensuring that their products meet all applicable guidelines as well as our internal standards. While there is no regulatory definition for ‘natural' cosmetics, the products we offer in this category are made primarily from natural ingredients."

Sephora scores some points for admitting that the term natural isn't regulated and lacks a specific meaning. What the company fails to do is point out what qualities their "green" products have that make them safer, healthier, and more eco-conscious. Instead, the Web site list of approved green products is defined by nebulous terms like antioxidants, botanicals, essential oils, fruit extracts, marine bioactives, minerals, and vitamins.

The result is a group of products that purport to be better but fall far short of the mark. Because Sephora doesn't make any specific claims on its Web site, it's hard to call them out on their misdirection. But describing certain products as all-natural when they're loaded with harmful chemicals takes advantage of unwitting consumers.

ScamFactor: 6 out of 10

"Green" hand sanitizers
Hand sanitizers have long relied on green-centric advertising, playing up the health benefits of protecting oneself from bacteria, viruses, and other nefarious characters. Moreover, saving water is an eco-friendly act, and hand sanitizer manufacturers can make the claim that their products let you disinfect your hands without draining your tap. Yet the hand sanitizer industry has invited dozens of allegations of chemical dangers and poisoning, making it one of the most under-the-radar health hazards out there. Children, in particular, are susceptible because they're more likely to ingest the alcohol-based substance.

To tap the burgeoning green market, several "all-natural" hand sanitizer options have emerged to address this problem. They promise to disinfect your hands as an "organic, plant-based alternative to chemical-laden hand sanitizers." Their downfall, however, is that many green hand sanitizers still have alcohol in their formula — just like their standard counterparts, which hardly makes them a safe or green option.

The hand sanitizer industry has remained undercover when it comes to the health risks its products present. Only in the last two years have the media started paying attention to hand sanitizers' ability to sicken consumers. The organic options might sound better for you, but the reality is that organic alcohol is still alcohol-and that's the biggest threat to safety and health in the products. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that people stick to soap and water for safe disinfecting.

The upside is that consumer watchdog groups are finally taking a more aggressive stance on hand sanitizers. EcoLogo announced last month that it would define a set of standards for healthy, green hand sanitizers. While phony, "all-natural" sanitizers abound, the EcoLogo program has the potential to change this. In the meantime, stick to CleanWell, the 100 percent biodegradable, alcohol-free line.

ScamFactor: 6 out of 10