A recent class action lawsuit over environmental claims demonstrates why advertisers should use caution when describing their products. The suit was filed against Fiji Water, alleging that the company made false and deceptive environmentally beneficial claims about its bottled water.

Starting in 2007, Fiji began advertising its bottled water as “carbon negative.” According to the suit, the company also claimed to be the “first and only major bottled water company to make this commitment, under which [it] will continue to offset 120% of [its] emissions.” However, the plaintiffs argue that those claims are misleading because Fiji actually purchases carbon credits (or “forward crediting”), while consumers believe that the company currently removes more carbon than it releases.

The complaint also alleges that Fiji does “not remove more carbon pollution than they create; they simply claim credit for carbon removal that may or may not take place – up to several decades in the future.” Furthermore the plaintiff asserts that “Reasonable consumers of Fiji water understand defendants’ ‘carbon negative’ claim as meaning that Fiji water’s current operations remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release into it. This is simply not the case; in reality, Fiji water’s operations do not remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release into it.”

The plaintiff, who claims she repeatedly purchased Fiji water based on the “carbon negative” claim, argues that Fiji captured a substantial segment of the multibillion-dollar bottled water market by distinguishing itself with its environmental claims, despite charging a premium for its water at $2.59 per bottle (competitors’ prices range from $1.89 to $1.45).

To read the complaint in Worthington v. Fiji Water, click here.

Why it matters: Advertisers should use caution when making environmental claims, whether they relate to recycled materials or carbon offsets. In addition to private suits, “greenwashing” claims are on the radar of the Federal Trade Commission, which recently released proposed updates to its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. Under the FTC’s updated Green Guides, marketers should “clearly and prominently disclose if [their] carbon offset represents emission reductions that will not occur for two years or longer.”