An end to “greenwashing”? The FTC issues new Guides cautioning marketers against making “broad, unsubstantiated claims”

greener than what?No, this isn’t a “green” blog, but on occasion, I do dabble as a “greener than what?” blog. For example, I love the fact that mid century houses tend to be smaller than today’s norm, and consistent with that footprint, they are likely to use less energy and be responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions than larger houses. I also encourage “Love the House You’re In” and try to help showcase alternatives to the seemingly ceaseless mass market push to remodel — when the push doesn’t necessarily make financial (and likely not environmental) sense. As a result of all this — along with my communications background and my perfectionistic nature — one of my tip top pet peeves in recent years has been companies that make loosey goosey environmental claims about their products. So, I was very pleased to see that in early October 2012, the FTC issued their revised “Green Guides” — a cautionary, detailed 36-page guide to making environmental marketing claims — aimed at companies and their marketers. <– The entire Guide is hotlinked just before this sentence, and the press release, along with other links, are below, but the real nut seems to be this:

Among other modifications, the Guides caution marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly” because 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, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate.

That is, if a company calls their product “environmentally friendly” or “eco friendly” or “green” — they are likely in violation of the updated FTC guidelines and can be penalized. Said another way: Companies simply no longer can say — in a stand-alone way — that their products are “environmentally friendly” or “eco friendly” or “green”.

What can companies say? Instead of making a broad claim, they must describe the specific and qualified environmental benefit of their product — and substantiate their claims with data (which I presume, is made transparently available to consumers). There also are guidelines on how to make comparisons correctly.

There are some additional caveats in the Guides that make quite a lot of sense to me. Such as: You can’t say you’re recyclable if there are few such recycling programs.

Companies making vague, broad “eco” claims about their products are being sloppy at best, deceptive at worst. Moreover, an excess of broad, vague, unsubstantiated environmental claims has made consumers skeptical of such claims — which hurts companies trying to do the right thing. Yay on you, FTC. Go get ’em.

Full news release from the FTC’s October 1 announcement:

The Federal Trade Commission issued revised “Green Guides” that are designed to help marketers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive.

The revisions to the FTC’s Green Guides reflect a wide range of public input, including hundreds of consumer and industry comments on previously proposed revisions.  They include updates to the existing Guides, as well as new sections on the use of carbon offsets, “green” certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims.

“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated.  The FTC’s changes to the Green Guides will level the playing field for honest business people and it is one reason why we had such broad support.”

In revising the Green Guides, the FTC modified and clarified sections of the previous Guides and provided new guidance on environmental claims that were not common when the Guides were last reviewed.

Revisions to Previous Guidance. Among other modifications, the Guides caution marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly” because 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, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate.

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.

New Sections.  The Guides contain new sections on: 1) certifications and seals of approval; 2) carbon offsets, 3) free-of claims, 4) non-toxic claims, 5) made with renewable energy claims, and 6) made with renewable materials claims.

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, because such seals or certifications are likely to convey general environmental benefits.

Finally, either because the FTC lacks a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance or wants to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules or guidance of other agencies, the Guides do not address use of the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic.”  Organic claims made for textiles and other products derived from agricultural products are covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

The FTC first issued its Green Guides in 1992 to help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims.  It revised the Guides in 1996 and 1998, and proposed further revisions in October 2010 to take into account recent changes in the marketplace.  The guidance they provide includes:

  • general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims;
  • how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims, and how marketers can substantiate these claims; and
  • how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.

The Guides issued today take into account nearly 340 unique comments and more than 5,000 total comments received since the FTC released the proposed revised Guides in the fall of 2010.  They also include information gathered from three public workshops and a study of how consumers perceive and understand environmental claims.

The Green Guides are not agency rules or regulations.  Instead, they 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 Commission orders prohibiting deceptive advertising and marketing and fines if those orders are later violated.

The FTC has brought several actions in recent years related to deceptive recyclability, biodegradable, bamboo, and environmental certification claims as part of its overall effort to ensure that environmental marketing is truthful and substantiated.

Consumer and Business Education.  The FTC today also released several business and consumer education resources designed to help users understand the Guides.  These include: 1) “Environmental Claims – Summary of Green Guides,” a four-page summary of the changes in the Guides; 2) “The Green Guides,” a video explaining highlights of the changes ; 3) a new page on the FTC Business Center, with links to legal documents, the Guides and other “green” content; 4) a Business Center blog post; and 5) related consumer information.

The Commission vote approving the Guides was 5-0.  They will be published in the Federal Register notice shortly and are not subject to public comment.

  1. Jen says:

    There is a great push on residential consumers to recycle, reuse and save energy but little is being done to prevent corporations from making major products such as washing machines, refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and stoves.(using valuable energy and materials) with a built in obsolescence of 7 years when these very same products were once built to last 20 years or more. What about the energy used in both making and transporting a product. What about the pollution that is caused? What about valuable materials such as trace elements that are being thrown away? Don’t corporations have a responsibility to make a good quality product that lasts. Some products now only have a 30 day or one year warranty and barely last past their warranty date. Is the capitalist greed so much that corporations are okay with making landfill products. Does anybody have any ideas on how we can prevent this through legislation. It seems to me that we need federal legislation that determines exactly how long products have to be designed to last especially major household products. The Soviet Union designed washing machines to last 50 years. We don’t need to accept energy efficient products in exchange for products that don’t last as long. We can have both quality long lasting products that are energy efficient. We just need to make corporations do it through legislation.

  2. Juliw says:

    I am in full support of this, even though I don’t live in America, it would be nice to see others follow. I know people who are ripping out things in their homes which function perfectly in place of ‘eco-friendly’ products. Explain to me, how is that being eco-friendly???? You are just creating more WASTE for the environment!!!! Makes no sense.

    I once had a tar/driveway paving company knock on my door for services. I told them I wasn’t interested but they could leave a business card. There response was that they didn’t have cards because they are ‘green’……. a tar company that is green…??

    Thanks again for this info!

  3. Jamie D says:

    One of the silliest “green” products I’ve seen recently were doggie poop bags that claimed to be recyclable. Um…

  4. Robin says:

    This is slightly off topic but I thought I’d throw in my two cents worth. I’m a historic preservation specialist at a military base. I work in the Public Works Department and hang out with engineers and construction managers all day. The knee jerk reaction in regard to old buildings (we have over 200 WWII and Cold War era buildings) is that “they don’t work” and “they don’t and can’t meet” the new mandates for “green buildings.” So the fate of many older buildings is demolition and replacement with a newer “more efficient” building. The other feeling is that it’s cheaper to build a new building than retrofit an existing one to bring it up to modern building codes. Interestingly, more and more studies are coming out that show the opposite. A lot of existing buildings can be modernized for far less than it would cost to build something new. Plus the “green” benefits are huge – the old building stays out of the landfill and new materials aren’t needed for new construction.

    The real problem with old buildings is that a lot of them have suffered from a lack of maintenance. Many older buildings were designed before central heating and air conditioning, so they incorporate natural ways of regulating heat. But if those systems aren’t properly maintained, they stop working.

    Here’s my favorite example from the base. Hangar 1 was built in 1957 and is still in use. It’s a double sided hangar with huge glass paned “accordian” doors (sadly the glass was painted over in the 1980s). The mechanics in the hangar were complaining that it was too dark inside and that it lacked cooling in the summer. So the engineers came up with a scope of work to add lights and air conditioning units. It was hugely expensive. But then an enlightened soul raised his hand and said “Geez, if we just scrape the paint off the windows and get the roof vents working, I bet we could save a lot of money.” Stunned silence. And it worked.

  5. Elaine says:

    This is great! One of my pet peeves the recyclable claims. So many communities have limited recycling. If the item is not commonly accepted, there should be a link to find locations where it can be recycled. For instance, my community accepts only 1 and 2 plastics, and we have only one day a year when we can recycle batteries. In another community, batteries can just be thrown in the trash.

    These “green” marketers and manufactories could have a lot of influence on establishing broader recycling opportunities in more communities.

    1. Kate says:

      I do wish that all communities had the same recycling guidelines — the last neighborhood I lived in (which was in the same county as I currently live) only accepted plastics 1, 2 and 5. My new neighborhood takes all plastics 1-7 (which is pretty much everything). I don’t understand why the entire county wouldn’t have the same regulations…

      1. Jay says:

        Where I live, the homeowner pays an approved private company to pick up the trash. When I first lived in the house, the plastic picked up was only 1 and 2. They then had the ability to sort everything so we were notified that single stream recycling was in place. One container for paper, glass, cans and the plastic. What could be easier and once a week. My last home, not so easy – only papers and cans every other week so long as there was no holiday. The other stuff was on you to find somewhere to take glass and plastic. Which is why I now live in a township trying to protect its open space and is very much into preserving natural resources and encourages composting and rain barrels.

      2. Jay says:

        About time! Skeptic that I am, I place “eco friendly” products into the same category as dietary supplements with their dubious and unsubstantiated claims.

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