It’s Even Less Easy Being Green: FTC Cracks Down on “Greenwashing”

By | Posted March 19th, 2013

One of the pithier adages to emerge during the rise of modern marketing is “sex sells.” While this time-tested truism continues to dominate the marketplace, claims of eco-friendliness exert a pull on consumers nearly as powerful as more sensual enticements. In fact, even in a challenging economy, 82% of consumers say they purchase “green” products. As a result, more and more companies have introduced products sporting claims of biodegradability, carbon neutrality, and hazily-defined “greenness”—and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken note.

The FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (known colloquially as “The Green Guides”) have been updated to address a world and marketplace that has changed radically since their introduction in 1992. In an attempt to control spurious and misleading claims of environmental friendliness, the FTC has issued stricter guidelines for companies wishing to promote their products as “green.” Let’s take a closer look at some of the updates designed to protect consumers from products far greener in their marketing than in their use.

Biodegradability

Biodegradability

One of the oldest and most pervasive claims for eco-friendliness is biodegradability. Products that biodegrade will eventually dissolve into their component parts and be reabsorbed by the earth, providing food, fertilizer and other essential elements for the continuation of the life cycle here on Earth.

The problem with this claim, however, is that just about everything is biodegradable, given enough time—both a banana peel and a plastic water bottle will “return to the earth,” but only one will be gone within the year specified by new FTC guidelines (the water bottle will most likely be hanging around intact for at least a few millennia). According to the updated Green Guides, marketers are barred from making any claim of absolute degradability unless they “can prove that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within a year after customary disposal.” The same goes for products headed to the local landfill, recycling plant, or incinerator, since they’re not going to break down as quickly in the first, will be repurposed in the second, and will be going up in (potentially pollutive) smoke in the last.

Companies with sketchy claims to biodegradability under the new guides will face possible legal ramifications. Last year, three bottled-water manufacturers got themselves in hot water with the California Attorney General for claiming their bottles were “100% biodegradable and recyclable.”

Carbon Offsets

Carbon Offsets

Much has been made of “reducing one’s carbon footprint” via carbon offsets (monies provided to fund reduction of fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions), but the cash consumers hand over may actually be funding programs that won’t reduce emissions until months or even years in the future. In addition, the complexities of carbon offset programs have, in the past, allowed unscrupulous businesses to sell the same offsets twice, sell offsets to consumers that were required by law and would have been enforced even without consumer participation and cash, or to receive government reimbursement or incentives for projects implementing changes required by law (and therefore theoretically excluded from such incentives and reimbursements).

Under the new FTC guidelines, carbon offset programs require strict attention to detail and greater transparency. The crackdown means companies that do offer carbon offset programs (like car rental giant Enterprise) will have to keep on their toes to comply, and companies looking for a quick and easy way to “upscale” their product may be encouraged to seek other, less rigorous approaches. Either way, consumers looking to reduce their carbon footprint via carbon offsets can do so with greater confidence.

Claims of General “Greenness”

Greenness

Claiming one’s product is “green” is a surefire way to boost its appeal in an increasingly eco-conscious marketplace. A Harris poll conducted by the FTC found that the majority of consumers are willing to shell out more cash for products that offer environmental benefits.  The lack of strong regulation regarding the use of terms like “green” and “eco-friendly” has, until now, encouraged those eager to cash in on popular sentiment to slap a label with said terms on their product and reap the associated benefits.

At issue is the fact that the FTC has discovered “few, if any” of the companies who claim their product provides environmentally-friendly benefits can back up that claim with hard evidence. Consequently, the new guidelines advise marketers to avoid “unqualified” claims of “general environmental benefit,” and instructs them to be as specific as possible when describing what (if any) aspects of their product make it “green.” This will, it is hoped, prevent situations like the one in early 2012 wherein several window manufacturers were cited by the FTC for advertisements making dubious claims about the savings and energy efficiency provided by their products.

eco-friendly

It’s clear that environmentally-savvy (and not-so-savvy) consumers, and the marketplace eager to sell them products and services, are here to stay. While consumer education and ethical marketing by companies are critical components to a successful future for eco-friendly products (and, by extension, a more healthy environment), measures like the Green Guides help to ensure both corporate accountability, and adequate protection for consumers, in the brave new world of green technology.