After more than 10 years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released proposed revisions to the “Green Guides”
used to help companies apply “truth in advertising” when making environmental claims.
The new changes can be summarized in two words: Prove it
Companies are expected to provide such proof in clear terms on the package, label or shelf so that consumers are not confused by any of the claims. Proof or qualifications should be clear or prominent and refer to only one specific benefit.
Claims of environmental benefits—such as “green,” “eco-friendly” or “environmentally friendly”—are considered too broad to substantiate. If you can prove that your product is “environmentally friendly,” you’re welcome to use the term.Seals and certifications
There are hundreds of eco-labels in use around the world. Those seals and certifications that appear on packages, boxes, bottles and even menus are a form of “transparency by proxy.” Consumers want to believe that they represent some kind of endorsement of environmental attributes and that someone has validated or confirmed the claim.
There are really three kinds of “eco-labels,” according to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO):
• Type I—Voluntary, multiple-criteria based, third-party programs that award a license authorizing the use of environmental labels on products indicating overall environmental preferability of a product within a particular product category based on its life cycle.
• Type II—Informative environmental self-declaration claims.
• Type III—Voluntary programs that provide quantified environmental data for a product, under pre-set categories of parameters set by a qualified third-party and based on a life cycle assessment, and verified by that or another qualified third-party.
The new FTC guides propose these actions regarding seals and certifications:
• For voluntary, multiple-criteria based, third-party programs—such as those offered by trade associations or other trade groups: marketers should make clear that the programs are established by trade groups and define their relationship (subscriber, member, etc.) to the group.
• For self-declared claims: marketers should use “clear and prominent qualifying language to alert consumers that it created the certifying program.”
• For third party certification based on audits or verification of a series of parameters: marketers will need to show that the certification “constitutes competent and reliable scientific evidence to support its claims.”
Here’s where you need proof!
If you currently use any of these terms or phrases, you will need to substantiate or qualify them:Degradable
—Does it actually “completely breakdown and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after disposal?”Compostable
—Will the product/package breakdown into usable compost in a safe and timely manner? That is, will it break down in approximately the same time as the other materials with which it is composted?Recyclable
—Recycling programs are not available evenly across the country, so the Green Guides now propose language that reflects three tiers of availability:
• If a “substantial majority” has access to the kinds of recycling facilities that can handle your product or packaging, you can make an unqualified recyclable claim.
• If a “significant percentage” has access to the kinds of facilities that can recycle your product/packaging, you must say that the product or package “may not be recyclable in your area.”
• If “less than a significant percentage” has access to recycling facilities, you must say that it is “recyclable only in the few communities that have recycling programs.”Made with Renewable Materials
—What are the renewable materials? How are they sourced? Why are they renewable? Made with Renewable Energy
—You may not make unqualified claims of renewable energy use if any part of the power used to make any part of the product or package was derived from fossil fuels. Be aware that fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) currently provide more than 85 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States.
Carbon Offsets—Supporting claims of carbon offsets will need the following supporting evidence:
• Appropriate accounting methods to ensure that you are properly quantifying the emission reductions and are not accounting for them more than once.
• Disclose if the offset purchase pays for emission reductions that will not occur for two years or longer.
• If the basis of the offset is already required by law, you may not claim a carbon offset.What can you do?
→ Identify and carefully examine all the “green” claims made regarding your products.
→ Read the “Green Guides Summary of Proposal” and the Federal Register Notice to understand how the new guidelines will affect your labeling, packaging and advertising.
→ If you have a product that is endorsed or certified by a third-party, determine whether the steps you take for audits and validations can be used to substantiate your claims.
→ Be proactive and look for new and different ways to inform and educate your customers. Your proofs do not have to be dry “legalese,” they can tell the story behind your product.
This summary is not intended to be advice on qualification or substantiation of your specific green claims; you are advised to read the details of the “Federal Register Notice on the Proposed, Revised Green Guides.” Get a copy of the notice and the “Green Guides Summary of Proposal” here.