By Sophie Quinton on Nov 8, 2010

FTC Green Guides: What You Need to Know

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Eco-conscious shopping can be a daunting task. Among “enzyme-based” and “chlorine-free,” “recyclable,” “recycled” and “post-consumer recycled,” we’re bombarded with endless terms and choices. It sometimes feels like buying green requires a Ph.D., and confusing marketing makes matters even worse.

Labeling and advertising practices should help companies showcase the environmental good they’re doing and help consumers make better choices. Yet labels often confuse customers, misrepresent a product or outright lie about its eco-friendly credentials.

The Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides are undergoing an extensive review process, and updates will be published early next year.

In a study by environmental marketing company TerraChoice, more than 95 percent of consumer products investigated made at least one unproven environmental claim, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In order to protect consumers and keep marketers honest, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publishes a series of marketing guidelines called the Green Guides. The Guides are currently going through an extensive review process, and updates will be published early next year.

These revisions should make it easier for businesses to communicate with customers. But the new Green Guides won’t resolve the big debates that, for years, have made it hard for consumers to decide what’s best for the planet.

Protect yourself from greenwashing

The Federal Trade Commission is a consumer watchdog agency that issues advertising guidelines and initiates legal action against companies that make false claims. It doesn’t make laws, but it assures businesses follow the ones that are already in place.

The FTC also publishes guides for businesses in order to help them keep their marketing as honest and clear as possible. By soliciting feedback from both consumers and industry leaders, the FTC can figure out which environmental claims are often misunderstood by shoppers and, in turn, warn businesses against using those sorts of claims.

Like any kind of advertising, environmental claims need to follow certain basic rules: conflicts of interest must be disclosed, claims must be substantiated by evidence and marketers should aim for specificity. Unfortunately, companies often misrepresent their environmental efforts, or slap buzzwords like ‘natural’ into a product description without changing its chemical makeup.

Seek out specific, verifiable claims

The Green Guides meticulously document common examples of misleading advertising and urge businesses to be more specific. Skim through the current Green Guides, and you’ll come across all-too-familiar examples of disingenuous labeling. For example, a package is labeled “50 percent more recycled than before”. Yet on closer inspection, it turns out that the manufacturer has increased the recycled content from 1 percent to 2 percent. True, that’s a 50 percent increase, but the product is still only 2 percent recycled overall.

In the current guides, the terms “recyclable” and “biodegradable” take center stage. All to often, such terms are misused or misrepresented. Packages should clearly state which product components can be recycled, how to process an item labeled “biodegradable”, and shouldn’t market goods as “recyclable” to communities that lack recycling facilities

When it comes to green marketing, the worst offenders may be labels like “all-natural” and “environmentally friendly.” What do these all-encompassing terms actually mean?

Throughout its research, the FTC discovered that a word like “green” is relative and means different things for different people. In an FTC consumer research study, 61 percent of respondents believed the label “green” indicated that a product had been made from recycled materials; 53 percent believed it was biodegradable and 45 percent believed it was nontoxic (see full proposal, p42). The “green” product could have been one or all of these things – or none of them. Consumers were forced to guess what the label meant.

Don’t follow eco-labels blindly

The proposed updates to the Green Guides include three new categories: renewables, carbon offsets and eco-labels. They also add more guidance for existing categories, mostly by urging still greater specificity.

Know before you go. Check the facts about eco-labels, and familiarize yourself with common "green" terms that pop up in the marketplace. (Stock Photo)

Eco-labels have become a popular way for consumers to find environmentally friendly products. Yet so many labels and certifications have cropped up in recent years that it’s hard to know which to trust, or to fully understand what a label guarantees.

In the new guides, the FTC plans to classify eco-labels as “endorsements.” This means that marketers must disclose the origin of the seals and have complete confidence in their scientific accuracy. If an eco-label is of the manufacturer’s own invention, or if the manufacturer is part of a trade association that issues the label – suggesting a potential conflict of interest – that information must be disclosed.

In the new Green Guides, you won’t find government-sanctioned labels or an official ranking of labels in terms of environmental impact. The Guides aim to ensure marketers communicate efficiently with customers, not to solve scientific debates or pass environmental legislation. While the updated Guides note the depth of consumer confusion, they’re not in the business of defining terms or creating standards.

It’s (still) not easy being green

While decoding eco-labels and the like may seem like an uphill battle, the new guides will hopefully make marketing more transparent. But they won’t make it any easier to define terms like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”, or to rank environmental benefits relative to one another.

Some choices (like keeping lead-based paints away from our children) are easy to make, but others are far more complicated. Who’s to say whether it’s more important to reduce energy use, or protect forests? And the debate between organic versus local still rages. On many of these issues, there’s both a lack of scientific consensus and an element of subjectivity.

The FTC Green Guides don’t enter into these debates. Instead, they hammer home the fact that every claim a marketer makes must be substantiated and clearly stated. The new guidelines encourage marketers to use claims like, “made with 50 percent wind power” rather than “made with renewable energy”; to note time periods for biodegradation; and to make sure all claims regarding carbon offsets are backed up with strong science.

A globe design and the words “eco-friendly” look great on packaging, but that claim means nothing unless it has proof behind it: fully disclosed, honest statistics that explain how the product has been made, why that process minimized environmental impact and how consumers can dispose of the product responsibly.

What can consumers do?

Eco-conscious consumers can do two things: know the issues, and keep it simple. Think about the environmental topics that are the most important to you, and follow brands and labels that minimize the impacts you’re most concerned about.

Know what each eco-label guarantees. USDA Organic, for example, is federally regulated and ensures that an item was grown without the use of organic fertilizers, pesticides and hormones. However, tt doesn’t mean that animals were allowed to graze outside, the food came from local family farms, or that farm laborers were paid a living wage.

Look at ingredient lists; check for known toxins, and buy what’s simple. Choose energy-efficient appliances; install water-conservation devices at home, and use enzyme or plant-based cleaning products. And remember the basics that make the most impact: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Read it for yourself. Check out the full text: Proposed Revisions to the Green Guides

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