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FTC revises guide for environmental marketing claims

NEW GUIDELINES SEEK TO ELIMINATE GREENWASHING

By Melissa McGuire

In an attempt to continue the elimination of greenwashing, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released a revision of its Green Guides (Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims) for marketers/manufacturers to further ensure their products’ claims are accurate and truthful. The changes contain updates to the existing Guides as well as new sections on the use of carbon offsets, green certifications and seals, renewable energy claims, nontoxic claims and renewable materials claims.

The revisions take into account more than 5,000 comments received from consumers and businesses, and the final document includes the addition of sections that were not common when the Guides were last reviewed in 1998. Weighing in at a whopping 314 pages, the Guides contain 17 sections, nine more than the older version.

“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and for producers who want to sell them,” said Jon Leibowitz, FTC’s chairman. “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated.”

The Green Guides, effective immediately, are not agency rules or regulations, Leibowitz said. Instead, they describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Under Section 5, the agency can take enforcement action against deceptive claims, which ultimately can lead to FTC orders prohibiting false advertising and marketing as well as fine the offender if the orders are later violated.

 The Green Guides revisited

One particular change addresses the purpose of the Guides as it relates to environmental claims as a whole: “These Guides apply to claims about the environmental attributes of a product, package or service in connection with the marketing, offering for sale, or sale of such item or service to individuals. These Guides also apply to business-to-business transactions.” The previous version was ambiguous about the application of service and B2B transactions.

In addition, the same section also states the Guides apply to both direct and implied claims whether through words, symbols, logos, depictions, product brand names or any other means. If there is any insinuation of an environmental claim by a marketer, the Guides are expected to cover it. And the continuing theme seems to be substantiation. To clarify this, the FTC recommends marketers qualify environmental claims and limit them to a specific benefit, such as recyclable or biodegradable qualities.

“We welcome the release of the latest revision to the Green Guides and applaud their efforts to bring a greater awareness and responsibility to the marketing of environmental claims,” stated Holly DeBrodt, LEED AP, director of sustainability, Bentley Prince Street. “In the carpet industry, we are moving toward more transparency and understanding of total environmental impacts and away from the days of rampant greenwashing and single-attribute definitions of sustainable products. It is refreshing to witness this evolution and we will continue to look to sources like the FTC Green Guides to keep us on the path to a more sustainable future.”

The flooring industry has always been in front of the substantiation movement. Third-party certification, life cycle assessment (LCA), environmental product declarations (EPDs) and product category rules (PCR) have been a commonality with manufacturers for years. In fact, Tandus Flooring recently became the first organization to publish two EPDs under the recently revised PCR issued by NSF International.

“Publishing the EPDs was the natural next step in the process of ensuring complete transparency in our environmentally responsible practices,” noted Lynn Preston, technical environmental manager, Tandus. And in the flooring industry, that natural next step has now become more than a competitive advantage; it’s possibly become a necessity.

Emma Williams, manager, corporate communications, sustainability, Shaw Industries Group, said the FTC Green Guides have long helped to ensure marketers make honest claims about the environmental benefits of their products. “As an organization committed to providing our customers and stakeholders with clear and substantive information about Shaw’s sustainability efforts and the sustainability of our products, Shaw is supportive of the FTC’s steps, as reflected by the new Green Guides, to continue pushing for the clarity, specificity and accuracy of environmental claims. We believe this will help to further ensure consumers receive only the most credible information about the products they purchase and use as part of their daily lives—including flooring.”

Currently, there are 432 worldwide eco seals and certifications. Because of this certification boon, which was not common when the Guides were last reviewed, a much-needed section was added emphasizing certifications and seals may be considered endorsements covered by FTC’s Endorsement Guides. The section includes examples with illustrations of how marketers can disclose a “material connection” that might affect the weight or credibility of an endorsement.

The Green Guides also:

•Advise marketers not to make an unqualified degradable claim for a solid waste product unless they can prove 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.

A summary of the Green Guides can be found online by visiting ftc.gov.