Avoiding green landmines

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Companies engaging in so-called “greenwashing” can become targets of more than ridicule by environmentalists. They can run afoul of the law. Two years ago, the Canadian Nuclear Association learned the dangers of inappropriate green marketing. The organization was accused by Canadian religious, public health, renewable energy and environmental groups of false advertising when it began to use ads touting nuclear power as environmentally clean, reliable and affordable. In the United States, the same real-world lesson plays out almost daily, said Dave Young, a partner in Washington, D.C.-based law firm Goodwin Procter. “From a legal perspective, if an advertiser isn't up to speed on federal and state regulations, they can get into trouble,” he said. “There are rules in place so advertisers have to be careful.” Here are three tips that every marketer should live by: ??Keep overgeneralizations out of copy. This was the reason the Canadian Nuclear Association found itself the target of complaint. “You can't say your power plant is environmentally clean because it doesn't burn anything to produce electricity if the fuel it uses is produced by coal-fired plants,” Young said. “You've got to be thinking about your product's entire life cycle—cradle to grave.” ??Use third-party certifications to tell your story. Certifications such as LEED and designations such as Green Seal and Energy Star can be beneficial marketing tools. If someone else says your company or product is green or has green business practices, you're less likely to come under fire. “You have to substantiate partners' claims, too though,” warned Young. “You can't just rely on what someone tells you.” ??Tap your in-house counsel. Every piece of green-related ad copy should go through a legal review. At the very least, your marketing message should follow the Federal Trade Commission's Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. The so-called “Green Guides,” which are expected to be updated in 2009, can be accessed from the FTC's site at —K.J.B.
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