Greenwashing Suit Against Colgate Moves Forward

Several California residents brought a greenwashing suit against Colgate, alleging recyclability claims on the company’s toothpaste packaging are false and misleading. At its core, the case boils down to whether or not recyclability claims can be made based solely on a product’s ability to literally be recycled, while ignoring the actual capacity and infrastructure of recycling plants to handle such products. The Court, in its Order denying the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss summarized the allegations as such:

“Plaintiffs allege that the claims described above are ‘false, deceptive, misleading and/or unlawful’ because ‘virtually all of the municipal recycling programs and materials recovery facilities (‘MRFs’) in California and the United States reject the Products.’ The reasons for this, according to Plaintiffs, are that (1) recycling facilities ‘are unable to effectively distinguish between Defendant’s purportedly recyclable tubes and conventional toothpaste tubes which cannot be recycled, and (2) the Products cannot be fully emptied, and the leftover toothpaste contaminates the recyclable waste stream, which makes the Products unrecyclable and jeopardizes the recyclability of truly recyclable materials.’”

Front and center in this case are the FTC’s Green Guides which state that general recyclability claims are only justified when at least 60% of the population can effectively recycle the product. According to the plaintiffs, only 40% of California consumers have access to facilities capable of recycling Colgate’s toothpaste tubes. The FTC’s Green Guides are non-binding guidance aimed at helping marketers understand the FTC’s position on green marketing, but in this case they may carry legal weight. That’s because California Law incorporates the FTC’s Green Guides into state law and uses the Guides to define environmental marketing claims. We’ll probably see more litigation arising relying on the Green Guides, especially once the updated version is published. Companies should be careful about how they portray recyclability and environmental attributes of their products.

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