Written by R.E. Lord

FTC Green Guide

The Federal Trade Commission seeks public comments on proposed changes to Green Guides

Seeking to more precisely define what has become one of the most overused, amorphous words in the English language, the Federal Trade Commission wants the public’s help revising its “Green Guides” for marketers.

The changes will be the first to the agency’s Green Guides in more than 10 years – a decade that has seen an explosion of consumer products, product certifications and seals of approval using the word “green” and related terms.

“In recent years, businesses have increasingly used ‘green’ marketing to capture consumers’ attention and move Americans toward a more environmentally friendly future. But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “The proposed updates to the Green Guides will help businesses better align their product claims with consumer expectations.” A public comment period runs until Dec. 10, 2010, after which the agency will decide which changes to make final.

The Green Guides were first issued in 1992 to help marketers ensure that the claims they are making are true and substantiated.

The revised guides will provide “new guidance on marketing claims that were not common when the guides were last reviewed” in 1998, the agency says, and will “caution marketers not to make blanket, general claims that a product is ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘eco-friendly’.”

An FTC “consumer perception study” revealed that the use of such terms and descriptions “are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits.”

The overarching theme of the proposed changes seems to be that marketers need to have specific, verifiable information to back up their claims to being “green”, “renewable” and the like.

“Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate,” the agency says. “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.”

The proposed revisions also advise marketers how consumers tend to understand claims that a product is “degradable, compostable, or ‘free of’ a particular substance.”

“The FTC’s consumer perception research suggests that consumers could be misled by these claims because they interpret them differently than marketers intend,” the agency notes. “Because of this, the guides advise marketers to provide specific information about the materials and energy used. Moreover, marketers should not make unqualified renewable energy claims if the power used to manufacture any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels.”

The FTC is seeking comment on all aspects of its proposal. The Guides can be found on the FTC’s website at http://www.ftc.gov/os/fedreg/2010/october/101006greenguidesfrn.pdf .

A summary of the proposed revised Guides can be found at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2010/10/101006greenguidesproposal.pdf.