FTC Issues Revised "Green Guides"

October 2, 2012
Government

The Federal Trade Commission has issued its revised “Green Guides,” designed to help marketers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive. First issued in 1992, the guides have been revised three times to take into account changes in the marketplace.

“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them,” says Jon Liebowitz, FTC chairman. “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.”

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, the government states.

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;
  • 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.

New sections in the guides cover

  • certifications and seals of approval;
  • carbon offsets,
  • free-of claims,
  • non-toxic claims,
  • made with renewable energy claims,
  • made with renewable materials claims.

The new section on certifications and seals of approval emphasizes that certifications and seals may be considered endorsements that are covered by the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, and includes examples that illustrate how marketers could disclose a “material connection” that might affect the weight or credibility of an endorsement. In addition, the Green 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.

The Guides do not address use of the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic,” officials note, because the FTC lacks a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance or wants to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules or guidance of other government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Green Guides take into account nearly 340 unique comments and more than 5,000 total comments received since the FTC released the proposed revisions in the fall of 2010, officials report. They also include information gathered from three public workshops and a study of how consumers perceive and understand environmental claims.

The Green Guides are not agency rules or regulations. Instead, they describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may or may not find deceptive, it reports.  The FTC has brought several actions in recent years related to deceptive recyclability, biodegradable, bamboo, and environmental certification claims as part of its overall effort to ensure that environmental marketing is truthful and substantiated.

In addition to the new guides, the FTC has also released a four-page summary of the changes in the guides; the video below explaining highlights of the changes, a new page on the FTC Business Center, with links to legal documents, the Guides and other “green” content; a Business Center blog post; and related consumer information.