Class Action Accuses Classic Cleaner of Greenwashing

April 1st, 2009 by Eric Lane Leave a reply »

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I’m starting to see a slight uptick in lawsuits alleging greenwashing, i.e., making false or deceptive environmental claims (see previous greenwash suit post here).  The latest target is that classic household cleaner, Windex

Last month Wayne Koh filed a class action suit in federal court in San Jose, California against SC Johnson & Son, Inc. (“SC Johnson”), accusing the maker of Windex of misleading consumers about the “environmental safety and soundness” of the cleaning product (koh_complaint.pdf).

At issue is SC Johnson’s use of its GREENLIST trademark (below), and in particular, its placement of the mark on the Windex product labels. 

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According to the complaint, the reverse side of the product label states:

Greenlist is a rating system that promotes the use of environmentally responsible ingredients.

The complaint alleges that the GREENLIST mark and accompanying statement falsely imply that the Greenlist designation is administered by a neutral third party when, in fact, it is owned by SC Johnson. 

Moreover, SC Johnson is representing that Windex is made with natural and environmentally safe ingredients, the complaint states. but the company has not changed the ingredients of the cleaning product.  According to the complaint, these ingredients include ethylene glycol n-hexyl ether, which is “not naturally derived and poses serious danger, including death, if ingested by wildlife and small children.”

The complaint further alleges that products bearing the GREENLIST mark contain some of the same “non-natural toxic chemicals harmful to the environment and animals” as SC Johnson products without the label.

The complaint states several California state law claims relating to unfair competition, false advertising, unlawful business practices and consumer protection violations.

SC Johnson owns two U.S. trademark registrations and two pending applications, one each for the word mark GREENLIST and the GREENLIST design mark for various cleaning products.  They are Registration Nos. 3,518,048 and 3,522,370 and Application Serial Nos. 77/039,858 and 77/142,889.  None of the registrations or applications is for a certification mark. 

Whether SC Johnson is truly greening its cleaning products I can’t say, but I don’t see any outright falsehoods here.  The brief explanation of Greenlist on the product label seems to be literally true.

Also SC Johnson’s Greenlist webpages (see here and here) state that SC Johnson developed the ratings system and that the company itself is screening its ingredients because “we plan to measure ourselves against a much higher internal standard.”

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