Several manufacturers of disposable plastic bags have filed suit against reusable bag maker ChicoBag for false and misleading claims about the environmental superiority of its reusable bags over disposable bags. The complaint claims that ChicoBag’s advertising and promotional materials violate the federal Lanham Act and the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act. According to the complaining bag makers — Hilex Poly Co., Superbag Co. and Advance Polybag Inc. — they have been harmed by ChicoBag’s exaggerated claims about their products. Among other things, ChicoBag created the “BagMonster” to symbolize the number of disposable bags used by the average American, and has also launched this site about the suit.
There appears to be no dispute that ChicoBag made some incorrect or poorly substantiated claims. A company website acknowledges that it had relied upon some out-of-date sources, and has since updated and documented the claims made on its “Learn the Facts” page and elsewhere. This has not stopped the suit, however. Here’s more from the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chico News & Review.
The context of this dispute is a broader debate about the merits of disposable products. ChicoBag may exaggerate the threat posed by the accumulation of solid waste, but there are other environmental (and even economic) reasons one may prefer reusable bags. The ChicoBag itself is a handy little product, even if it won’t save the earth.
As this litigation proceeds it will be interesting to see whether ChicoBag mounts a First Amendment defense. The company’s claims are as much about spreading an environmental message as they are promoting a product — and public debate over such questions would seem to be worth constitutional protection, even if economically motivated claims about a specific product are not. Somewhat ironically, one of the last companies to make this argument, Nike Inc., did so against environmentalist and human right activist attacks. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices punted in Nike v. Kasky. Perhaps Hilex Poly v. ChicoBag will provide the Court with an opportunity to revisit this issue and determine when a company’s commercial claims end and participation in public debate begins.