Posted on November 9, 2012 by Elliot Laws
We’ve all seen the advertisements. Products that are supposedly “recycled,” “environmentally friendly,” and “green,” with labels and commercials resplendent in shades of light green and yellow, seeking to evoke nature, sunlight, and a family-friendly, non-toxic product. But how “green” must a product be in order to rightfully proclaim itself to be so? The revised “Green Guides,” issued by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) on October 1, 2012, propose to answer that very question.
Originally issued in 1992, and revised in 1996 and 1998, the FTC’s “Green Guides” offer guidance to marketers on how to properly use words of environmental attribution in describing products. The Guides are examples of environmental claims that the FTC might find deceptive under the FTC Act, § 5; they are neither rules nor regulations. The current version of the Guides was released in proposed form in 2010 and received several hundred unique comments. Beyond analyzing the comments, the FTC accumulated additional information based on three public workshops and a study designed to understand how consumers perceived environmental claims. The final version of the Guides, in addition to updating its original content, provided additional information on newer types of environmental claims.
The new sections in the Guides cover carbon offsets, certifications and seals of approval, “free-of” claims, non-toxic claims, and two claims relating to the manner and materials used in production: renewable energy claims and renewable materials claims. As an illustration of the new sections, the FTC addresses deceptive practices used to claim an emissions reduction through carbon offsets. Marketers should “clearly and prominently disclose if the carbon offset” does not provide an emissions reduction for over two years. Similarly, claiming that a carbon offset corresponds to an emissions reduction that is otherwise required by law is a deceptive practice.
Other sections are modified. For example, the Guides clarify that an unqualified degradable claim must be able to show that the entire product or package will break down completely within one year after disposal. Objects that are expected to go to a landfill, incinerator, or be recycled do not degrade within a year, and thus should not be linked to such a claim. In each of its 13 total sections, the FTC provides concrete examples of practices it terms deceptive.
The Guides recommend that some environmental claims not be used at all, such as “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly.” The consumer study performed by the FTC found that these terms indicate wide-ranging environmental benefits that few, if any, products may obtain. The Guides do not address “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic” to avoid conflicting or duplicative advice from other agencies that have the purview of these terms.
In order to provide assistance to the general public in understanding the Guides, the FTC produced several educational and business resources, from summaries to a highlight video to relevant legal documents. These resources, in conjunction with the Green Guides themselves, provide protection to consumers, allowing us more transparency into just how “green” our products really are.