Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

With apologies to Kermit, it might be getting a little easier to be "green".

The FTC has proposed new Green Guides on marketers' use of environmental claims, intended to clarify the existing Guides and make them easier for companies to follow. In particular, the FTC is concerned about the gap between what companies think "being green" means and what consumers think it means. As always, the key is whether the claim is deceptive, and leaving out important clarification details or qualifying information (as many marketing pros like to do to move product) can increase the likelihood of deception.

The Guides were last updated in 1998, and most of the terms addressed in the 1998 version are a bit outdated. The proposed Guides focus on newer terms like "eco-friendly", "environmentally friendly", "renewable materials", and "renewable energy", which studies show consumers believe mean the product has "far-reaching environmental benefits ... [that are] nearly impossible to substantiate."

For example, the proposed Guides caution against the use of a bogus "seal of approval" that is nothing more than shilling by the company that makes the product. So don't expect to see a "Bert's Best Blogs" seal of approval stamped on any future posts. It's just not right, and would certainly be misleading.

Similarly, even though no trees were killed in bringing you this blog post (a little coal was certainly burned to power my laptop, however), I just can't claim that this blog is more "eco-friendly' than the next blog. In fact, even proving such a claim is a little outside the realm of believable science. I don't think even Facebook allows you to friend an entire eco-system...yet.

And if you want to use the terms "renewable materials" in your product advertising, you must provide specific information about the materials and energy used. Marketers are directed not to make unqualified renewable energy claims if the power used to manufacture any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels.

Accordingly, the proposed Guides also suggest that claims regarding carbon offsets should be carefully worded, as a company's promise to plant a tree today to offset the carbon used in making their product is not likely to have any immediate effect. In fact, the tree would have to survive ten summers of lawnmowers, weed trimmers, and climbing toddlers before any real impact could be expected.

Seems like a reasonable, if limited, effort to keep companies honest about how "green" their products really are. It is certainly good to see more enforcement of these types of regulations. Since the Guides were first promulgated in 1992, 45 complaints have been filed by the FTC regarding questionable environmental marketing claims. During the eight years of the Bush Administration, no administrative complaints were filed on such claims. In the last two years, seven complaints have been filed.

Last year, the FTC went after Kmart Corp., which had advertised its store-brand paper plates as biodegradable, which FTC deemed misleading because the plates would not usually decompose in municipal solid waste facilities, where about 90 percent of garbage is disposed. Kmart ultimately agreed to change the labels.

The commission filed two other complaints over the biodegradability of products, as well as four against companies using environmental claims in the marketing of bamboo clothing. In all four of those cases, FTC argued that because the clothing material had been made from bamboo into rayon using harsh chemicals, consumers were being misled by claims that the use of bamboo was environmentally friendly.

Clearly, complying with these revised Guides is not likely to cause much indigestion among marketing folks, as there are not a lot of drastic changes. But it is clear that the best way to avoid running afoul of the new Guides will be to clarify and substantiate any claims you make on your product.

Unfortunately, the proposed Guides do not address use of the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic.” Those terms alone account for tremendous amounts of deception in today's marketplace, and companies routinely take advantage of the confusion about what those terms really mean.

If you want to review the proposed Guides, click here. If you'd like to submit your comments to the FTC, click here. Comments are accepted for sixty days beginning today, until December 20, 2010. A copy of the press release announcing the proposed Guides can be found here.

As always, if you have purchased a product that was not as "green" as you were led to believe, or not what the label promised, give me a call. I would be particularly interested in hearing from you if you purchased bamboo clothing that was advertising as "green".


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