Photo by Stephanie Staton
Let’s face it, green sells. Consumers want products that are biodegradable, organic and made with renewable materials—and that means companies are eager to make those claims about their goods and services.
To protect consumers from false claims about eco-friendliness of products, the Federal Trade Commission began publishing Green Guides in 1992, to provide guidance to those who market products and services about making legitimate environmental claims. In short, the Green Guides help define the meanings of various green labels, offer examples for their fair use and attempt to deter marketers from making misleading environmental claims.
“The Green Guides were designed to help avoid consumer deception,” explains Laura Koss, senior attorney for the FTC. “While the FTC doesn’t establish environmental performance standards, it does make sure there is truth in advertising.”
The guides were revised in 1996 and 1998, and now the FTC is working on another round of revisions that includes, among other updates, new guidance for the use of product certifications and seals of approval. The revised Green Guides will also include guidelines for using claims that were not included in past guides, including “carbon offset” and “renewable materials” claims. The Green Guides do not address use of the terms organic, natural and sustainable. Organic labels, in particular, are regulated by the USDA.
“The revisions address new claims that didn’t exist the last time the [Green Guides] were updated,” explains Koss.
Among the proposed revisions, the FTC wants to introduce cautions about making general claims that a product is “green” or “eco-friendly” because those labels suggest far-reaching environmental benefits that are impossible to substantiate.
Another proposed revision advises marketers about the proper use of green seals and certifications for their goods and services. The seals and certifications used should be clear, prominent and specific, and those that are unqualified—where there’s no specific basis for certification—should be avoided.
While the guides are aimed at marketers and not the general public, there are far-reaching benefits for consumers.
In a press release issued by the FTC, chairman Jon Leibowitz explains, “What companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things. The proposed updates to the Green Guides will help businesses better align their product claims with consumer expectations.”
The FTC has jurisdiction over false advertising claims, which means legal action can be taken against marketers who falsely promote a product with a green label, such as biodegradable, phosphate-free or made with renewable power. In other words, the guidance set forth in the Green Guides help protect consumers from becoming victims of green-washing.
Urban farmers who sell to the public (or are thinking about taking that step in the future) will benefit from proposed changes to the Green Guides that make them easier to understand. According to Koss, referencing the guides can help sellers remain “on the right side of the law” and protect against possible legal action for making false claims.
The public is invited to comment on the proposed changes to the FTC Green Guides. Comments are open until Dec. 10, 2010. Once all of the comments are collected, the FTC will launch a comprehensive review and vote on the proposed changes.