FTC Advises Against General Eco-Friendly Claims


To paraphrase Kermit, it may get even harder being green, or at least promoting oneself as green.

The Federal Trade Commission Wednesday advised marketers not to make blanket claims that a product is "environmentally friendly" or "eco-friendly" because they are "nearly impossible to substantiate" and are likely to suggest "specific and far-reaching" environmental benefits that few, if any, of them have.

It also advised them not to use unqualified seals of approval or certifications because those, again, suggest general benefit claims.

If marketers make claims that something is "degradable" or "compostable," the product should decompose within a year, and if a renewable energy claim is made, fossil fuels should not power any of the manufacturing process. It made a similar proposal about claims for renewable materials.

The FTC advises that any claims about carbon offsets should be ones that occur within two years and ones not already mandated by government. It is also proposing some changes to guidelines on "ozone-friendly," "recyclable" and "free-of" and "nontoxic" claims.

Those were among the FTC's proposed changes to its guidelines on environmental marketing claims unveiled Wednesday.

The commission is seeking comment on those and other proposals through Dec. 10, when it will vote on what changes to make.

Among the questions it seeks answer on are:

"How should marketers qualify "made with renewable materials" claims, if at all, to avoid deception?
"Should the FTC provide guidance concerning how long consumers think it will take a liquid substance to completely degrade?
"How do consumers understand ‘carbon offset' and ‘carbon neutral' claims? Is there any evidence of consumer confusion concerning the use of these claims?"

The guidelines advise marketers on what "green marketing" claims the commission may find are unfair or deceptive.

The FTC has limited rulemaking power, so the guides are to give marketers fair warning about what the FTC may sue them for as an unfair or deceptive practice. For a summary of the proposed additions/changes, click here.

The guides outline general principles, give the FTC's take on how consumers could be expected to interpret various claims, and provide guidance on how advertisers can qualify or support their claims to make sure they pass muster.

The FTC has been working on updating the guidelines for several years now. In June 2009, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz testified before Congress about a "virtual tsunami" of environmental marketing.

The FTC's so-called "Green Guides" were last updated in 1998. They were not scheduled for review until 2009, but the commission decided to start in 2007, citing the rise in "green" marketing that Leibowitz referenced. It is also looking to add advice on claims that were not common in 1998, when the guidelines were last revised.

Ad agencies have been cautioning the commission not to take any steps that would "stifle the ability or the interest of a company to make positive steps in improving the environment or that would restrict a company's ability to market and communicate its activities in this area."

Leibowitz, who also invoked Kermit in a press conference on the changes, said the goal was actually to make it easier for companies to be green by clarifying what claims they could make, and that the changes were in part a response to industry's desire for more clarity. He said he expects a lot of voluntary compliance. "Companies want that," he said.

In response to a question from Multichannel News, Leibowitz said the FTC's goal is for the guidelines to be in place by first-quarter 2011.

FTC commissioner Julie Brill said that in addition to clarifications, the three additions to the guidelines are on renewable materials, renewable energy and carbon offsets, all new claims since the last time the guidelines were updated.

FTC has brought seven cases in the last year on biodegradable claims.