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FTC’s “Green Guides” Finally Updated. Our Take: The Good, Bad and So-So

Posted 10.11.2012

In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission announced it would begin considering whether to update its “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.” At the time, these “Green Guides” hadn’t been updated for a decade. Think 1997 – “recyclable” and “compostable” were about the extent of green claims. Today, it’s all that and renewable energy, carbon credits, hybrid cars, and more complex stuff. Of course the Green Guides needed to be updated.

GWI

But when we heard the FTC would begin its review process with three workshops in Washington, DC, in 2008, we knew the updates would be a long time coming. The slow churnings of federal government is one reason we launched GreenwashingIndex.com – the world’s first online forum that allows consumers to post and scrutinize real “green ads” with simple criteria developed by our partners at the University of Oregon. We attended and reported on each of those DC workshops, and when the proposed updated Green Guides were finally posted for public comment in 2010, we leveraged our consumer insight from the Greenwashing Index and gave our formal input to the FTC.

Now, after two years of silence, the FTC has finally issued the revised Green Guides, and we are heartened to see our comments cited 23 times in the update’s “Statement of Basis and Purpose” in areas related primarily to general environmental benefit claims, carbon offsets, renewable energy, recycling, organics and sustainability.

We’ve taken a close look at the final changes to the Green Guides and here’s our concise reaction to a few of them — which we’ve rated “Good,” “Bad” or “So-So.”

  • Green Guides: “Marketers should not make broad, unqualified general benefit claims like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly.’
  • EnviroMedia: So-So. We’re pleased to see broad terms like these addressed, but the FTC left alone other marketing buzzwords like “natural” and “sustainable” “because the FTC lacks a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance.” We’re not sure why the FTC can provide guidance on two of these nebulous terms but not the others. It left “organic” to the USDA, and that makes sense.
  • Green Guides: “Marketers should have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support carbon offset claims.”
  • EnviroMedia: Good. The FTC can’t set environmental policy, and carbon offset rules are a moving target. But the FTC did recommend that promoted offsets be real (sold only once), immediate (emission reductions within two years) and voluntary (not required by law).
  • Green Guides: Certifications and Seals of Approval need to identify specific environmental benefits.
  • EnviroMedia: So-So. It will be good to see the specific benefit on the package, but we asked the FTC for a universal standard like Energy Star. Right now, there are 430 difference “seals of approval.”
  • Green Guides: Degradable means it should break down within one year of “customary” disposal.
  • EnviroMedia: Good. We hope there will be fewer so-called “biodegradable” utensils, cups and chip bags being dug out of backyard compost bins. FTC also says “compostable” products and packaging need to break down with other stuff in the pile. Makes sense.
  • Green Guides: Marketers can call it “free of” even if there are “trace amounts” of a substance.
  • EnviroMedia: Bad. We appreciate the demand to be specific about how much bad stuff is in the product but are thrown by the ability to call it “free of” if, “the substance wasn’t added to the product intentionally.” Huh? We rated this effort “Bad” instead of “So-So” because it’s only contributing to consumer confusion, which is bad for authentic environmental marketing.
  • Green Guides: Clarify use of “made with renewable energy”.
  • EnviroMedia: So-So. We really like that marketers can’t make this claim unless all of the manufacturing process is powered by renewable energy. The FTC also specifies that any amount of fossil fuels doesn’t count, but we won’t be completely happy until there’s a ban on the use of the phrase “clean coal.” We doubt the “clean coal” people will be checking the voluntary Green Guides and correcting course any time soon. Meanwhile, consumers could be consuming more of a polluting product because they’ve been led to believe it’s “clean.” Remember, 40 percent of Americans didn’t know whether or not “coal is a renewable energy source” last time we checked (EnviroMedia, Opinion Research Corporation, November 2010). Wonder why.
  • Green Guides: Rather than saying a product generates “10 percent less waste,” the marketer should say the product generates “10 percent less waste than our previous product.”
  • EnviroMedia: Good. Manufacturers should focus on making their product sustainable before they try to hype it.
  • Green Guides: Marketers who claim that their product is non-toxic “need competent and reliable scientific evidence.”
  • EnviroMedia: Bad. We don’t like this term. FTC should have banned confusing claims of non-toxic along with eco-friendly.
  • Green Guides: Marketers should qualify recyclable claims when recycling facilities are not available to at least 60 percent of the consumers or communities where a product is sold.
  • EnviroMedia: Bad. Why not 100 percent? The FTC reports, “Enviromedia Social Marketing argued that unqualified recyclability claims are non-deceptive only where the product is accepted by 100 percent of curbside recycling programs in major metropolitan areas, defined as the top 100 cities by population.” Yup. That’s what we said, and we’re sticking to it. Admittedly, the new 60 percent guide should give some major container manufacturers pause about using the chasing arrows on their product if it is distributed across the country. Recycling advocates should use this guide as ammunition to nudge governments and consumer brands to improve curbside programs.
  • Green Guides: Marketers shouldn’t call a product refillable unless they provide a way to refill the package.
  • EnviroMedia: Good. Because a product shouldn’t be called refillable unless it is refillable. Imagine that.

How to report Greenwashing to the FTC:

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).