What Do You Mean When You Say It's Green? New guidance from the FTC on eco-friendly marketing


If you market products, packaging, or services that claim to be “green” or “eco-friendly” or that display green certifications or seals of approval, what should you do to avoid a claim that your advertising is misleading? Under proposed revisions to the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (Green Guides), issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), marketers should be prepared to limit such claims to what they can specifically substantiate with demonstrable evidence.

The FTC first introduced the Green Guides in 1992 to “help marketers make truthful and substantiated environmental claims” about their products and services. In the years since the Green Guides’ last amendment in 1998, consumers have grown increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the products and services they use. This has led to a marked increase in the number of product manufacturers and services making environmental benefit claims, as well as a proliferation in the language used to make such claims and in the number of agencies providing “green” certifications and seals of approval.

Extensive studies conducted by the FTC prior to proposing the new Green Guides revisions indicate that consumers and marketers do not see eye to eye on the question of what it means when a product or service is marketed as “green.” In the FTC’s words, “Very few products, if any, have all of the attributes consumers seem to perceive from [unqualified claims that an item is ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘eco-friendly’]. Therefore, these claims may be impossible to substantiate … .” Through the proposed Green Guides revisions, the FTC aims to bring needed clarity to the issue of how to avoid misleading consumers when marketing the “greenness” of products.

Revision fundamentals

The essence of the proposed revisions is that “marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims,” and that “qualifications should be clear and prominent and should limit the claim to a specific benefit.” Accordingly, the proposed revisions include a list of commonly used green marketing terms and establish criteria for measuring whether a product or service qualifies for the use of the terms.

To illustrate: For a product to be called “degradable” under the proposed revisions, it must typically decompose within a year after customary disposal. Further, if only a portion of the product is degradable (such as the packaging), the marketer must make it clear that the claim of “degradable” is limited to the packaging itself and does not include the remainder of the product.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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