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Sherwin-Williams Zero-VOC Claim Misleading, Says BBB

 

In a move that could prompt industry-wide changes to claims about volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division (NAD) has told Sherwin-Williams it should stop marketing its Harmony line of paints as “zero-VOC.”

Base paint vs. tinted paint

Sherwin-Williams advertises its Harmony paint line as zero-VOC, but buyers need to know tinting can increase VOC levels, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Paints must have fewer than 5 grams per liter (g/L) of VOCs to officially qualify as “zero VOC,” and the Harmony base coat meets that threshold, according to tests. However, the typical colorants used to tint the paint can be much higher in VOCs. Harmony base paint tinted with conventional colorants can result in VOC levels as high as 112 g/L, according to tests commissioned by a competitor for the NAD. Since Sherwin-Williams only advertises tinted varieties of Harmony paint and consumers are only likely to buy tinted varieties, says NAD, the zero-VOC claim is misleading.

In its findings, NAD recommended that Sherwin-Williams “clearly convey to consumers that there are exceptions to the line claim” and that “the addition of conventional colorants to Harmony Deep Base paint may result in higher levels of VOCs for some colors.”

Sherwin-Williams disputes results but accepts recommendation

Sherwin-Williams disputed the results of the commissioned testing, contending that colors had been cherry-picked and testing methods were questionable. Darker colors tend to have higher VOC levels, and the company argued that since the vast majority of paint sold is lightly tinted, most Harmony paint sold remains zero-VOC after colorants are added.

The company also claimed that consumers understand the zero-VOC label to apply to most colors, and not necessarily all of them. NAD countered that “there is no reason to assume that consumers inherently understand the variability of ingredients in different colors of paint.”

Sherwin-Williams also told NAD that its EnviroToners zero-VOC colorant would keep all Harmony paints below the 5 g/L threshold even after tinting, but NAD was not convinced by the argument, since, according to Sherwin-Williams, these special colorants are only available at 28% of its stores.

In a statement, Sherwin-Williams said it “will accept the NAD’s decision and will take the NAD’s findings into consideration in its future advertising for Harmony.” A Sherwin-Williams spokesperson declined to comment to EBN.

Benjamin Moore filed original complaint

“We felt like consumers are still confused about a lot of the claims out there,” said Dana Autenrieth of Benjamin Moore, the Sherwin-Williams competitor that brought the zero-VOC claim to NAD’s attention.

The universe of low-VOC paint advertising “is a tough world to navigate if you’re coming into it for a few days to buy some paint and then leaving again,” he argued. Consumers who seek out zero-VOC paint expect to take zero-VOC paint home with them, Autenrieth said, and if they unwittingly purchase a high-VOC paint instead, “we are doing them a disservice as an industry.”

Benjamin Moore has invested significant resources into developing and marketing its Natura line of paints, which uses zero-VOC colorants, Autenrieth added, and now it wants “other paint companies to play fair.”

When asked if Benjamin Moore would take action against other companies making similar claims about zero-VOC base coats, Autenrieth said he was unsure, but added that it would probably not be necessary. “Historically, a ruling like this in any green industry will prompt other companies to take notice and change” their labeling and advertising.

In the meantime, he said, paint buyers seeking low-VOC or zero-VOC paints should ask if the product they are buying still meets the desired standard after tinting.

January 25, 2011

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