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FTC’s New Green Marketing Guidelines Go After Greenwashers

10/12/2010 12:00:00 AM

Tags: FTC, marketing guidelines, products, green claims

Eleven years ago, when we launched Natural Home magazine, an important part of our mission was helping readers find environmentally friendly products and materials. These days, we spend as much time vetting products that claim to be green—and too often, they aren’t.

As marketers have realized that “green” sells, more companies claim that their products are biodegradable, recyclable or made with renewable resources—whether or not the product actually has such benefits. Concerned with the gap between product claims and performance, the Federal Trade Commission has revised its environmental marketing guidelines for the first time since 1998.

The revised guidelines caution marketers against using broad terms such as “environmentally friendly” and “eco-friendly” because consumers tend to perceive these as having far-reaching environmental benefits with few drawbacks—yet few products actually live up to those standards. The new guidelines also warn against using unqualified certifications or seals of approval that do not clearly lay out certification requirements. The proliferation of private, third-party certification systems for “green” products (some launched by industry trade groups) has left consumers confused and suspicious.

greenwashed light bulb 
The FTC's revised environmental marketing guidelines will likely reduce greenwashing. Photo By Anita Sarkeesian/Courtesy Flickr. 

Unqualified terms such as biodegradable and compostable would get new definitions, too. Under the proposed regulations, a product must completely break down and return to nature within one year to be called “biodegradable.” Marketers would be prohibited from calling products destined for landfills or recycling centers “biodegradable” or “compostable” because they won’t break down in those locations. This would prohibit many items from being labeled “biodegradable,” as few consumers have access to composting facilities.

The revisions also offer guidance on terms not previously covered such as “made with renewable materials,” “made with renewable energy” and “carbon offsets.” To claim a material is renewable, marketers would have to list specific information about the material: what it is, how it’s sourced and why it’s renewable. Renewable energy claims would have to specify the renewable energy source (wind, solar, etc.) and would not be allowed if fossil fuels were used to manufacture any part of the product. The revised guidelines advise marketers to have scientific evidence supporting any carbon offset claims and suggest that marketers disclose if the offsets won't occur for two years or more. Carbon offset claims would be invalid if the offsets were required by law.

Newer, stricter guidelines could have a major impact on advertising. Within the last year, 1,110 packaged-good products that used the claims biodegradable, compostable, eco-friendly or environmentally friendly were launched.

The FTC is accepting comments through December 10.


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