The Federal Trade Commission today announced revisions to its Green Guides, which provide basic guidelines for the use of environmental claims to help prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. The revised guides are two years in the making, and take into account hundreds of public comments, including those from Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.
Originally issued in 1992, the Green Guides have proven effective at discouraging the use and abuse of unsubstantiated terms like "recyclable" and "ozone friendly." However, as we argued during the open comment period, the guides could do more to prevent deception, especially since they were last updated in 1998, before terms like "sustainable" and "renewable" grabbed hold in the marketplace.
Several of the revisions announced today succeed in pushing the program in the right direction. For example, we are pleased to see additional measures against the use of broad, unqualified claims like "environmentally friendly" or "eco-friendly." And we support the revised language that discourages companies from calling a solid waste product "degradable" unless it's clearly proven that the product will break down and return to nature within one year after disposal.
The FTC has also done an excellent job of providing real-world examples of claims that do and don't qualify as deceptive. Take the new section on seals and certifications: the Green Guide gives the hypothetical example of an advertisement for paint that features a self-awarded, self-claimed "GreenLogo" seal and the statement "GreenLogo for Environmental Excellence." Unless there is clear language on the package disclosing that no third-party objectively evaluated the paint, this claim would be considered deceptive, at which point the FTC could choose to take enforcement actions.
Unfortunately, the FTC didn't show the same follow-through with every proposal that was on the table. For example, Consumers Union argued that the FTC should provide much-needed guidance to other federal agencies that are struggling to adequately oversee other environmental marketing claims. Instead, the FTC chose "to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules or guidance of other agencies." That includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has been unwilling or unable to effectively manage the "organic" claim on products outside of their scope, including dry cleaners with organic claims and so-called organic fertilizer made from municipal sewage sludge, which is actually prohibited in organic agriculture. We believe the FTC's refusal to step in and assist with the policing of the organic category is a missed opportunity.
We also would have liked to see the claim "natural" included in the revised Green Guides. As we commented to the FTC, our surveys have found that the vast majority of consumers expect the "natural" label to mean that processed food does not contain any artificial ingredients, but current standards offer nowhere near that assurance, only prohibiting artificial colorings and additives. We also disagree with the FTC that "free of" or "does not contain" claims are allowable in certain situations when trace amounts of the substance or material in question are present. For example, if an insulation is "formaldehyde free," we believe it should not emit formaldehyde at any level, inconsequential to consumers or not.
In the end, the latest Green Guides continue to provide a solid floor under environmental market claims. But when the next revisions come up, we'll encourage the FTC to also look for ways to raise the bar.