Having prevailed in two “greenwashing” lawsuits, Coca-Cola Co. now faces litigation over an ingredient claim for its Simply Tropical beverage.
The company’s November wins in suits brought by the Earth Island and Sierra Club organizations underscore the complexities of sustainability claims in the absence of updated guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Earth Island sued Coca-Cola in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia over company statements including “Business and sustainability are not separate stories for The Coca-Cola Company—but different facets of the same story.”
The organization took issue with Coca-Cola claiming to be “sustainable” when its business practices rely on “the extraction and use of plastic.”
The Superior Court judge disagreed—ruling that Coca-Cola’s statements were “goals” as opposed to specific consumer promises.
“Because we don’t have a definition in law of sustainability, it’s really difficult to win a lawsuit like that,” Pat Parenteau, an environmental law expert and professor at the Vermont Law and Graduate School, said last week in a Bloomberg Law podcast.
According to Parenteau, the FTC is seeking public comment to update its regulations—last revised in 2012—regarding such terms as sustainability and recyclable. “We in this country do not have a standard set of rules that would be enforceable in a court that really gives definition to these terms.”
Earth Island is appealing the decision.
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the suit by Sierra Club challenged Coca-Cola on labeling declaring that its plastic bottles are 100% recyclable because so many end up in incinerators and landfills.
The judge in that case decided that reasonable consumers would understand that the term “100% recyclable” doesn’t guarantee the product will actually be recycled.
“That’s one thing the FTC can actually address if they’re willing to,” said Parenteau.
That would entail adding more language to labels -- "and, of course, that kind of defeats the whole point of green advertising. If you have to disclaim what you‘ve just said, then you’re not really gaining much in terms of consumer approval,” Parenteau said.
“It’s a tricky, tricky issue to figure out how much information can you communicate on the label of your product or in the advertising before consumers just get more confused.”
Marketing Daily reached out to Sierra Club to determine whether it will appeal the ruling but had not heard back by deadline.
On Dec. 28, New York resident Joseph Lurenz brought a class-action suit against The Simply Orange Juice Co. and The Coca-Cola Co. over the “all natural” labeling claim on the Simply Tropical juice drink.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the state alleges that testing by the plaintiff has indicated the presence of synthetic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS).
“PFAS are a group of synthetic, manmade chemicals known to be harmful to both humans and the environment,” the suit states.
It goes on to note that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined “a host of health effects associated with PFAS exposure, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.”
Marketing Daily reached out to Coca-Cola for comment but had not heard back by deadline.