FTC to scrutinize environmental claims

by Keith Nunes
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WASHINGTON – The Federal Trade Commission has published updated versions of its Green Guides, which are designed to ensure the claims companies make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful.

“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them,” said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated. The FTC’s changes to the Green Guides will level the playing field for honest business people, and it is one reason why we had such broad support.”

Changes to the Green Guides include cautioning marketers to not make unsubstantiated claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly.” The FTC said its consumer perception study shows such claims suggest a product has specific or far-reaching environmental benefits. But since few products have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, the agency said such claims are nearly impossible to substantiate.

The Green Guides also advise marketers not to make an unqualified degradable claim for a solid waste product unless they can prove that the entire product or package will break down completely and return to nature within one year after disposal. The guides caution that items destined for landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year, so marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for such items. The guides clarify guidance on compostable, ozone, recyclable, recycled content and source reduction claims.

New sections of the Green Guides focus on certifications and seals of approval, carbon offsets, free-of claims, non-toxic claims, made with renewable energy claims, and made with renewable materials claims.
The new section on certifications and seals of approval emphasizes that certifications and seals may be considered endorsements that are covered by the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, and includes examples that illustrate how marketers could disclose a “material connection” that might affect the weight or credibility of an endorsement. In addition, the guides caution marketers not to use environmental certifications or seals that do not clearly convey the basis for the certification, because such seals or certifications are likely to convey general environmental benefits.

With regard to free-of claims, the FTC said it is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product, package, or service is free of, or does not contain or use, a substance. Such claims should be qualified clearly and prominently to the extent necessary to avoid deception. The agency added a truthful claim that a product is free of a substance may be deceptive if the product, package, or service contains or uses substances that pose the same or similar environmental risks as the substance that is not present; or the substance has not been associated with the product category.

The FTC said the Green Guides are not rules or regulations. The agency, however, may take enforcement actions against companies that are found to have been promoting false or misleading claims.

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