Are Your Eco-Friendly Paints Really As Safe As They Claim?

published Jul 13, 2017
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(Image credit: Beyla Balla)

How environmentally friendly is your paint? Don’t (or maybe do) hold your breath: A handful of paint companies’ claims about the eco-friendliness of their premium-priced low-VOC paints might have been stronger than they can prove.

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This week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it has settled with four paint companies who may have misled consumers by marketing their products with a broad brush of “green” paint benefits and features despite a lack of scientific evidence to back up their advertising.

Four paint companies — Benjamin Moore, Imperial Paints, ICP Construction, and YOLO Colorhouse — have been offered proposed FTC settlements for making environmental and health claims without proper proof. According to the announcement by the FTC, these companies had been advertising that their paints are emission-free, VOC-free, and without chemicals that could harm consumers, including pregnant women, babies, and people with asthma — even featuring seals and certifications touting purported environmental benefits — but without substantiating the claims.

The proposed settlements would ban the companies from making claims that the paints are free of the chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds, unless there’s evidence that the paint produces only trace levels during and after painting, according to STAT Morning Rounds by The Boston Globe. The FTC also wants to have distributors put stickers over deceptive claims on the paint cans already being sold on store shelves.

“Benjamin Moore has been updating its marketing materials and product labels in coordination with guidance from the Federal Trade Commission,” the company said in an email in response to a request for comment.

The FTC has two major tips for how you can better evaluate the new (and existing) eco-friendly paints on the market for verified claims on your quest to creating the most organic home environment:

Look for specific, substantiated environmental claims
The ads in question made broad “VOC-free” and “no emissions” claims and didn’t include any qualifications or limitations. According to the FTC, consumers could reasonably understand those representations to mean that the products were “VOC-free” and “no emissions” both during and immediately after painting — claims for which the companies lacked substantiation. (What’s more, some ads featured pictures of a pregnant woman painting and a child wielding a paint roller while on his father’s shoulders, depictions the FTC says further reinforced the unqualified claims.) If a claim provides context, saying it applies in certain circumstances but not in others, then it’s reasonable to assume that it is being represented based on scientific study.

Look for official green seal certifications & beware of “self-sealing”
Benjamin Moore featured a “Green Promise” seal on some of its paints and Muralo labels bore an “Eco Assurance” seal. According to the FTC, consumers likely understood those seals as endorsements or certifications from an independent third party. So who bestowed the seals on the companies? The companies themselves. “Self-sealing” may be a positive attribute for envelopes, but not for advertisers that fail to disclose that seals are their own designations. This handy guide to official green paint certifications is a great place to start for sustainability verification.