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FTC Changing the Rules on Green Marketing

Greenwashing is a constant problem when you go shopping for eco friendly products. So many product claims have no legal definition. Fortunately, the FTC is in the process of changing that. They’ve proposed revisions to their “Green Guides” that help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims.

Can I say about time?!

These guidelines haven’t been updated since 1998. A lot has changed since then in the marketing of eco friendly products.

There’s a comment period open until December 10, 2010, after which the FTC will make the final decision.

So what are the changes proposed?

The revised Guides caution marketers not to make blanket, general 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 proposed Guides also caution marketers not to use unqualified certifications or seals of approval – those that do not specify the basis for the certification. The Guides more prominently state that unqualified product certifications and seals of approval likely constitute general environmental benefit claims, and they advise marketers that the qualifications they apply to certifications or seals should be clear, prominent, and specific.

Next, the proposed revised Guides advise marketers how consumers are likely to understand certain environmental claims, including that a product is degradable, compostable, or “free of” a particular substance. For example, if a marketer claims that a product that is thrown in the trash is “degradable,” it should decompose in a “reasonably short period of time” – no more than one year.

They’re looking for comments on any of the changes, so if you have thoughts, now is the time to share them.

These changes won’t cover everything. That’s really not a surprise. It’s hard to come up with a good definition for “natural” for example, that could never be used in a misleading way, as it so often is now. I expect that it’s going to continue to be wildly abused since it’s not going to be regulated. Such an easy claim to make, too.

The rules in general may not be terribly specific, but environmental claims are hard to define in general. Hopefully these new guidelines will encourage more use of concrete evidence of claims made. In other industries such as weight loss, claims must be proven, but that’s more difficult  when it comes to the environment and we don’t always know the full impact of what we’re doing.

These guidelines aren’t law, but they do give the FTC a basis for declaring claims to be deceptive or unfair. They can order companies to cease and desist making claims that aren’t reasonable to make, or fine them if they violate the cease and desist. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But it’s still going to be up to consumers to pay attention and spot the greenwashing claims. These new guidelines should help, but they aren’t going to solve the problem.