"Green" Labeling Does Not Mislead Reasonable Consumer to Believe Company's Product is Environmentally Superior
Protecting the environment has become a noteworthy objective for conscientious consumers. Not surprisingly, commercial producers have tapped into this market in labeling products. What does such labeling actually tell a consumer about the product? One such consumer, Ayana Hill, thought the green drop on the label of Fiji bottled water meant the product was "environmentally superior" and "endorsed by an environmental organization." She bought the product twice a week starting in 2008 paying about 15% more than for other bottled water; she would not have bought Fiji water had she known the green drop was the company's own creation and not an endorsement of the product by a neutral organization that the product was environmentally superior. She further alleged the product in fact caused no less environmental damage than its competitors did.
In Hill v. Roll International Corp. (filed May 26, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 7641, the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Two, affirmed the judgment of dismissal on sustaining of demurrer to plaintiff Hill's complaint that included allegations of violations of California's Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and False Advertising Law (FAL) (Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. and 17500, et seq., respectively), Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) (Civil Code section 1750 et seq.) and common law fraud. The appellate court found that no reasonable consumer would be misled to think that the green drop represented the endorsement of a separate organization or that the product was environmentally superior.
Significant to the court's analysis was the Federal Trade Commission guides that have been incorporated by the California Legislature into the statutory definition of environmental marketing claims. (See Business & Professions Code section 17580.5, subdivision (a).) Those guides require substantiation that an express or implied claim conveys to a reasonable consumer an objective quality, feature, or attribute of the product. Hill's subjective beliefs alone do not satisfy this requirement. Moreover, the context of the green-drop symbol indicates that it bears no name or recognized group logo, no trademark, and no indication other than it is a symbol of Fiji water.
As the trial court proceedings here terminated at the pleading stage, the court was satisfied that even assuming everything Hill alleged was true, she still could not prevail. So UCL and FAL plaintiff attorneys need to pay close attention that their pleadings adequately allege that asserted misrepresentations are such that the typical, reasonable consumer would be mislead, not just that the named plaintiff was mislead. And of course, be prepared to prove that. The standard is that of an "ordinary consumer within the larger population." (Lavie v.Procter & Gamble Co. (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 496, 510.)