FTC Clamps Down on Greenwashing With Revised Green Marketing Guides

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The Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly referred to as the “green” guides, were first published in 1992 to help marketers and advertisers avoid deceptive and far-reaching eco claims without proof or qualification. The final revisions were released Monday with a press conference outlining the changes. 

“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,” stated 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.”[more]

To cite three examples from the revised guidelines:

  • “Marketers should not make broad, unqualified general environmental benefit claims like ‘green’ or ‘eco friendly.’ Broad claims are difficult to substantiate, if not impossible.”
  • “Marketers should qualify general claims with specific environmental benefits. Qualifications for any claim should be clear, prominent, and specific.
  • “When a marketer qualifies a general claim with a specific benefit, consumers understand the benefit to be significant. As a result, marketers shouldn’t highlight small or unimportant benefits.”

The Guides contain new sections on: certifications and seals of approval, carbon offsets, free-of claims, non-toxic claims, made with renewable energy claims, and made with renewable materials claims.

They do not address use of the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic,” as 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 new Guides take into account more than 5,000 total comments received since the FTC released the proposed revised Guides in the fall of 2010 as well as information from three public workshops and a study of how consumers perceive and understand environmental claims.

The FTC edicts on deceptive advertising and marketing can result in fines if those orders are violated under Section 5 of the FTC Act. “If enough deception or uncertainty surrounding environmental claims creeps into the marketplace, consumers will tune them out altogether,” added Leibowitz. 

In the past few years actions have been brought in relation to deceptive recyclability, biodegradable, bamboo, and environmental certification claims.

“Our purpose is to make sure consumers that want to buy green products are getting truthful information,” said James Kohn, the associate director of enforcement for the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection. “There are two kinds of companies; those that live over the line and those that step over the line. The guides are written for companies that are trying to get it right.”

“It is certain [the new green guides] will change behavior among marketers over time,” commented Christopher Cole, partner in Manatt Phelps & Phillip’s, as noted by Adweek. “For those who ignore the new rules, one can predict that rigorous law enforcement activity will begin soon.”

Next up for the FTC: Updating the agency’s “truth in advertising” guidelines to reflect mobile and social media platforms, reportedly by year-end.

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