By Andrea Cavanaugh

Consumers today are concerned about the environment and our health. So we choose products or services advertised with green-related labels such as “eco-friendly,” or “biodegradable.” We’ve all seen a huge surge in this kind of marketing in recent years. Everything from household supplies to dog-waste bags to baby products are now labeled as friendly to the environment or safe for your health.

But how do you know if those claims are really true? It’s all too common for businesses to throw around these labels just to attract customers — but without the evidence to back them up. This practice is known as “greenwashing.”

Dry cleaning is one area that can be confusing. Many cleaners claim to be eco-friendly, organic, or at least “safe.” And in fact, the dry cleaning process has improved a lot in recent years. For a long time, businesses used a chemical called perchloroethylene, also known as “perc,” to clean clothing. Perc is now a known carcinogen and air pollutant, and it’s being phased out by law. Dry cleaners have been mostly switching over to one of two new methods: either hydrocarbon-based dry cleaning, or a chemical called D5 (also known as “Green Earth”). Both of these cleaning methods are generally considered safer than perc, but they haven’t been proven yet to be non-toxic to humans.

Six Santa Monica cleaners had switched over to these newer methods, and were marketing their dry cleaning as “safe,” “non-toxic,” or “environmentally friendly.” These green claims were a problem, since hydrocarbon cleaning and Green Earth had not been proven safe. California’s strict false advertising laws bar businesses from making any misleading or unprovable claims — they need to have evidence to back up all claims made in their ads.

The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Consumer Division investigated these claims and consulted with the City’s environmental experts. When it became clear that the businesses couldn’t back up their green claims with science, the City Attorney requested that they stop making the claims, and they did.

With any kind of product, it’s illegal for businesses to make “green” claims unless the claims are fully backed by scientific evidence. Also, the businesses need to have the evidence on hand.

If you believe a business might be making false or misleading “green” claims, you should question them. Many consumers contact companies directly — by email, phone, or social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. You can contact the business and ask them the exact basis for their claims. They should have a straight answer for you.

If you still question the accuracy of the green claims, you can contact a government consumer protection agency. If you or the business are based in Santa Monica, or you purchased the product here, you can contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at 310-458-8336 or smconsumer.org for more information. Otherwise, you can file a complaint with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (www.dcba.lacounty.gov).

Santa Monica residents or property owners who need help with these issues or want more information should contact the City Attorney’s Office at (310) 458-8336 or smconsumer.org. The Consumer Protection Division of the City Attorney’s Office enforces the law and educates the public about tenants’ rights, fair housing, consumer protection, and other issues.

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