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DEAR FTC: For the sake of the planet, stop greenwashing. Green Guides Out Monday.

Posted 09.30.2012

Five years after the tidal wave of green marketing hit, the Federal Trade Commission tomorrow will issue an update to the “FTC Green Guides,” rules aimed at protecting consumers from fraudulent environmental claims. We’ll comment here after we read the final rules. Below is our letter to the FTC regarding the draft rules from the 2010 public comment period.

December 9, 2010

Federal Trade Commission,
Office of the Secretary, Room H-135 (Annex J)
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580.

RE: Comments regarding proposed revisions to FTC Green Guides

As principals with EnviroMedia Social Marketing, we offer our comments for FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims; Project No. P954501.

As marketing communications professionals, we have both managed environmental marketing and communications since the early 1990s. In 1997, we cofounded EnviroMedia Social Marketing, the nation’s first advertising and public relations agency specializing improving public health and the environment.

In our work, we have produced hundreds of environmental marketing campaigns corporate, government and not-for-profit clients.

Since 2007, we have given many presentations about authenticity in green marketing across the US to several business and trade groups, NGOs and academic lectures. We are an active member in advertising industry groups, encouraging our peers to avoid greenwashing.

Our current and future clients will be affected by the proposed revisions to the Green Guides. Our own industry trade group appears reluctant to endorse revisions to the standards, or to work toward educating marketers about authenticity in green marketing.

Why Strong Revisions to the Green Guides are Necessary

We are contributing our perspective as the only business delegates from our industry to the United Nations Climate Change conference (2007-10). It is the UN scientific report that humans contribute toward global climate change which led to the explosion of interest in environmentalism and sustainability in 2007.

While some believe “going green” is a fad, it is in fact, a social movement responding to the climate crisis. This movement requires significant changes to the way we live and do business. To achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emission reductions, industry, business and consumers must find ways to reduce energy use and conserve natural resources in innovative ways.

Misleading or untruthful environmental claims (greenwashing) allow companies to say they’re green, but act differently. Some of these general claims are a result of a lack of understanding about the technical, economic, political and social aspects of air, water, waste and energy policies. Other claims are deceptive and may cause financial damages or public health problems. Our global challenges are too important to allow this matter to go unaddressed.

In the future, companies may be required to conduct a “life-cycle analysis” of how their products are manufactured, addressing packaging, distribute their products in a cleaner way, but those environmental regulations appear to be years away.

Yet, consumers are continuing to demand green products now. In a random national telephone survey of more than 1,000 American consumers, 81 percent said they continue to buy green products despite the weak economy.

[FOOTNOTE:EnviroMedia Social Marketing paid for the telephone survey of 1,022 adults 18 years of age and older living in private households in the continental United States conducted November 5-8, 2010, by Opinion Research Corporation.]
Green buying habits are relatively unchanged from the last time EnviroMedia asked Americans the same question (January 2009), with 82 percent saying they were still buying green despite the recession.

We believe the green marketplace will only continue to expand as more consumers demand companies find innovative ways to delivery products and services with less harm to the environment. Companies that innovate for the environment will understandably seek to highlight this differentiation in their marketing.

Overall, we believe a revision to the FTC “Green Guides” is long overdue. The published proposal (October 6, 2010) is on the right track, and with revisions and clarification, should be adopted by the Commission. The new guides will promote environmental authenticity, increase consumer confidence, and set the playbook for the marketing industry to follow.

We participated in the FTC’s “Eco in the Marketplace” workshops, and encouraged as members the American Advertising Federation to help solve the greenwashing problem through voluntary education. Self-regulation is not working.

The most egregious example has been use of the term “clean coal” by coal mining companies and electric utilities. Millions of dollars have been spent by the industry to mislead the public and avoid costly environmental regulations. In fact, their campaign has been successful. In a November 2010 national survey, one out of four Americans in the national telephone survey said coal — the fossil fuel that powers 45 percent of homes — in the US is a renewable energy source. (FOOTNOTE )

The FTC should not allow the industry to hide behind First Amendment immunity in this case because the claim is false and deceptive. Coal is a dirty rock from the earth, that when burned causes air pollution. Continuing use of “clean coal” leave true renewable energy companies at a disadvantage at a time when we need to begin a transition to pollution-free energy.

Education and Enforcement Critical

Due to the seriousness of global sustainability challenges, we urge the Commission to make the necessary changes to the proposed guides as soon as possible. Additional updates should be completed every two years as new innovative technologies and terminologies develop.

When the revised Green Guides are finally published in 2011, we urge the Commission to conduct extensive outreach and education to both consumers and the marketing and advertising industry.

It is also clear the FTC needs additional resources to conduct enforcement of the Green Guides. For the new rules to be effective, we can’t wait years to have a few token cases brought forward. Administrative penalties may be able to offset the cost of such resources.

Collaborate with Federal Government Partners on “Sustainable”

We understand the commission’s reluctance to provide a definition for terms such as “sustainable” and “carbon neutral” due to a lack of clear standards. However, these terms will increasingly become more important and more widely used. We encourage the FTC to work closely with the US Department of Energy and US Environmental Protection Agency to develop those criteria as soon as possible.

Consider the Greenwashing Index as a Body of Evidence

In responding to your 18 questions from the public notice, we have included in our comments several Internet hyperlinks to examples of ads and comments posted by consumers to the EnviroMedia Greenwashing Index. As we state on the web site, “The ads posted and evaluated here are not submitted or rated by EnviroMedia Social Marketing staff and the opinions, views and statements found on this site do not necessarily reflect those of EnviroMedia Social Marketing, its principals or employees.” More than 300 TV, print, online and outdoor ads have been posted to the site by consumers from all parts of the United States.

While consumer desire to do right by the environment was exciting in 2007, it became clear some marketers were taking advantage of that good will by making false or misleading environmental claims.

The problem grew so fast, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sped up its timeline to revamp its green advertising guidelines. We knew consumers could not wait for government action to protect them from greenwashers—companies that spend more time and money advertising green claims than actually implementing environmentally friendly practices. If consumers didn’t learn how to discern authentic green advertising from false green advertising, companies with genuine environmental stories would be threatened, and the merits of green advertising would be discredited.

EnviroMedia recruited University of Oregon faculty to help develop the Greenwashing Index with three goals: help consumers become more savvy about evaluating environmental marketing claims, hold businesses accountable to their environmental marketing claims, and stimulate demand for sustainable business practices that truly reduce the impact on the environment. Deborah Morrison, Ph.D. and Kim Sheehan, Ph.D. from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication played key roles in developing the site’s guidelines for what constituted greenwashing. When a consumer rates an ad with the Greenwashing Index, it will generate a score based on response to the following statements. The score is included in the ad’s overall score and comments are added to the tally. Scoring is similar to golf: high scores are undesirable (for the advertiser).
Do you believe the ad misleads the viewer/reader about the company’s/product’s environmental impact through the things it says? Does it seem the words are trying to make you believe there is a green claim when there isn’t? Focus on the words only — what do you think the ad is saying?
Do you think the advertiser has used green or natural images in a way designed to make you think the product/company is more environmentally friendly than it really is?
Does the ad claim environmental benefits without sufficiently identifying for you what they are? Has the advertiser provided a source for claims or for more information? Are the claims related to the company/product?
Do you believe the advertiser is overstating how green the product/company actually is? Are the green claims made by the ad believable? Do you think it’s possible for the product/company to do the things depicted/stated?
Do you think the ad exists to divert attention from something else the company does? Do you believe the relevant collateral consequences of the product/service are considered in the ad? Does it seem to you something is missing from the ad?

EnviroMedia built the site to be educational and interactive for consumers, investing $43,000 in developing, implementing and promoting the Greenwashing Index. The centerpiece of the new Web site was an automated tool to score consumers’ responses to five statements about the relevance of marketing claims in an ad. The average score then fell on a simple scale ranging from 5 (Bogus Ad/Greenwashing) down to 1 (Authentic Ad/Not Greenwashing).

When www.greenwashingindex.com went live in early 2008, it not only empowered consumers to post and rate ads, it also provided basic information for consumers to use when shopping for green products. EnviroMedia timed the site launch to coincide with the FTC’s “Eco in the Marketplace” workshops.
National news coverage for www.greenwashingindex.com included NBC’s Today Show, TIME, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Times. Environmental Leader, Brandweek magazine. Television news coverage included multiple markets, including Austin, Dallas, Seattle, Portland and San Diego.

Interpretation of qualified general environmental benefit claims

In 2009, we surveyed American consumers to reveal how they evaluate green marketing claims. {FOOTNOTE}
• About one in three consumers say they don’t know how to tell if green product claims are true.
• One in 10 consumers blindly trusts green product claims.
• Consumers are verifying green claims by reading the packaging (24%) and turning to research (going online, reading studies; 17%).

Consumers Want One Green Certification

With more than 350 green certifications, there is a heightened degree of credibility at stake for all of them. It is almost impossible for the average consumer to know all the technical requirements or specifications for packaging, recyclability, energy and water use, carbon impact. They are all important, but now they are competing for mindshare and product label space among each other.

In a recent national survey, we asked Americans “There are several hundred labels or seals of approval designed to help consumers know whether a product is green or healthy. Would having just one seal for all green products give you more confidence that you were buying green?

What we found:
The EnviroMedia/Opinion Research Corporation findings show: {FOOTNOTE}
• Two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say having one seal for all green products would give them more confidence that they were buying green. Only 26 percent said it would not.
• More Americans (41 percent) think that the primary enforcer of green product claims should be a third-party certification system beating out the government (Federal Trade Commission at 26 percent) and having the marketing/advertising industry police itself (16 percent). Seven percent named another group, 9 percent didn’t know, and 2 percent said no one should ensure green claims are true.


Our professional experience tells us authentic green marketing is possible, and it will help with our global environmental challenges. We appreciate the opportunity to provide our comments, and the hard work of the FTC in tackling this issue.


Valerie Davis & Kevin Tuerff
Cofounders, EnviroMedia Social Marketing