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Environmental certification becoming increasingly crowded and contested field

Similar fights are happening across a variety of industries. Over the past decade, the Marine Stewardship Council has helped redefine fishing by evaluating the sustainability of wild fisheries across the globe. Major purchasers, including Wal-Mart and Loblaw, Canada's largest food retailer, have pledged to sell only sustainable seafood by 2011 and 2013, respectively.

As suppliers have demanded more MSC-certified products, its reach has expanded. Five years ago, it had certified 14 fisheries and had 19 under review. Now, 71 have earned the label, and 127 are being assessed. But the group is drawing criticism for considering certification for fisheries in sensitive areas, such as the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery and the Antarctic krill fishery. Some scientists do not think krill should be caught for human consumption because it serves as the basis for the Antarctic food chain. And the demand for Chilean sea bass (the commercial name for toothfish) has become so intense that some wonder whether they can be fished sustainably at this point.

"When you provide certification, it sends a signal to consumers that everything's okay," said Jim Barnes, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, which opposes certification for the Ross Sea toothfish.

In the meantime, federal regulators are trying to crack down on the most egregious greenwashing. EcoLogo, a consultant on verification, surveyed more than 2,200 North American products in 2008 and 2009 and found that more than 98 percent lacked proof to justify their claims.

The FTC is going to issue a new guide for environmental marketing claims within a few months and has filed charges against textile manufacturers for deceptively labeling and advertising items as made of bamboo fiber when they were made of rayon and for selling biodegradable products that didn't degrade in landfills.

"The government has a role in policing the marketplace," said James A. Kohm, associate director of the FTC's enforcement division. When it comes to environmental claims, he added, customers often find themselves wondering, "I don't really know if I've gotten exactly what I've wanted, or if I've been ripped off."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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