The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued revised Green Guides this month to help manufacturers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and not deceptive. The changes include new sections on the use of carbon offsets, green certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims.
In revising the Green Guides, the FTC modified and clarified sections of the previous Guides and provided new guidance on environmental claims that were uncommon when the Guides were last reviewed. The new section on certifications and seals of approval, for example, emphasizes that certifications and seals may be considered endorsements that are covered by the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, and includes examples that illustrate how marketers could disclose a “material connection” that might affect the weight or credibility of an endorsement.
In addition, the Guides caution marketers not to use environmental certifications or seals that don’t clearly convey the basis for the certification; such seals or certifications are likely to convey general environmental benefits.
The Guides also caution marketers to avoid broad, unqualified claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly.” The FTC’s consumer perception study confirms that such claims are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits. Very few products have all the attributes consumers perceive from such claims, FTC attorney Laura Koss said, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate. The FTC recommends that marketers qualify environmental claims and limit them to a specific benefit, such as recyclable or biodegradable qualities.
“The company has to state why they consider their product green,” Koss explained. “If they just say it’s ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly,’ that’s sure to be seen as deceptive.”
The terms “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic” are not addressed in the Guides. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program covers organic claims made for textiles and other products derived from agricultural products.
The Guides also:
• Advise marketers not to make an unqualified degradable claim for a solid waste product unless they can prove that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within one year after customary disposal;
• Caution that items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year, so marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for these items; and
• Clarify guidance on compostable, ozone, recyclable, recycled content, and source reduction claims.
“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and for producers who want to sell them,” FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated.”
Leibowitz noted that the Guides, effective immediately, are not agency rules or regulations. Instead, the Guides describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may or may not find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Under Section 5, the agency can take enforcement action against deceptive claims, which ultimately can lead to FTC orders prohibiting deceptive advertising and marketing and fines if those orders are later violated.
The revised Guides take into account more than 5,000 total comments received since the FTC released the proposed revisions in 2010. The Guides also include information gathered from three public workshops and a study of how consumers perceive and understand environmental claims.