BBB: Green Guides seek to minimize exaggerated claims

04/20/2013 7:05 AM

04/20/2013 7:10 AM

Interest in buying products that don’t harm the environment appears to be stronger than ever. It’s a trend that has not gone unnoticed by marketers, and product labels frequently tout the green-friendly claims of many brands.

As Earth Day approaches, the Better Business Bureau reminds consumers that the Federal Trade Commission has revised its Green Guides to “help marketers avoid making environmental claims that are unfair or deceptive.” The hope is that the latest revision of the guide that took place in October will help rein in some of the exaggerated claims that have been splashed across product labels.

The FTC held a series of meetings to gauge the concerns of consumers as they deal with the proliferation of green claims in the marketplace. It found that consumers often interpreted the benefits of “eco-friendly” claims as being considerably greater than a product’s actual attributes.

The new guides seek to keep exaggerated claims to a minimum.

While the Green Guides are not technically rules or regulations, they do define what the FTC may find as deceptive marketing and are subject to enforcement.

Here is a condensed list of the guidelines:

• Unqualified general environmental benefit claims should be avoided because they are likely to be difficult to substantiate. Claims like “eco-friendly” and “environmentally safe” are too vague to be meaningful.
• “Free of” claims regarding a product can only be made if the product contains trace amounts or less of the specified ingredient. Even then, if the substance was added intentionally, the “free of” claim cannot be made.
• Unqualified claims of degradability cannot be made unless it can be proven that the entire product or package will completely break down within a year of disposal.
• Carbon offsets cannot be advertised if the law requires the activity that was the basis for the offset.
• Certifications and seals of approval require that the product manufacturer disclose any connection it may have to the certifying organization. The label may refer consumers to a website for more information regarding the certification.
• When renewable energy claims are made, the source of the renewable energy must be specified, such as solar or wind energy.
• Renewable materials claims must be substantiated. Marketers are advised that they must “clearly and prominently” qualify such renewable materials claims.
• Claims of compostable materials must be backed with evidence.
• “Non-toxic” claims can be made only if the product is safe for humans and for the environment.
• “Recycled” claims must say specifically whether they mean the product, the packaging or both, and what percentage is from recycled materials.

The new guidelines are not perfect, and some environmentalists have criticized them for not going far enough. They do not address the use of the terms “sustainable” or “natural,” citing a lack of sufficient basis for doing so. They avoid defining “organic” because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has its own guidelines for that.

They are a much-needed step forward, however. Access the FTC’s Green Guides at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/10/greenguides.pdf, or view a consumer-friendly version at http://business.ftc.gov/documents/environmental-claims-summary-green-guides.

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