The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued revised Green Guides in October. James Kohm, associate director, enforcement division, FTC, was on-hand at the CSPA annual meeting to help explain what it all means to attendees. The Green Guides were first issued in 1992 and were revised in 1996 and 1998. 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.
“We wrote the Guides to level the playing field,” assured Kohm. “We’re not playing a game of ‘Gotcha!’”
In fact, Kohm went out of his way to offer assurances that the FTC wants to work closely with industry to make sure that companies understand what the Guides are, what they can do and what they can’t do.
“We sue those companies who step over the line and those that live over the line,” said Kohm. “We didn’t write the Guides for people who live over the line.”
And how does FTC find out about companies that cross the line on green claims? Primarily from competitors who cry foul, according to Kohm. The Guides total 35 pages with “real world” examples and 308 pages of analysis.
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. 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, according to FTC.
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. The Guides 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 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.
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.
Perhaps, just as important, Kohm told the audience what The FTC Green Guides are not; i.e, they don’t offer a seal or certification and they do not define terms such as “organic” or “sustainable.”
“We didn’t give you advice on the word ‘natural,’ either,” explained Kohm. “It means so many things to so many people.”