Working With the FTC's Green Guides

What Marketers Can Do Now to Avoid Feeling Blue Later

By Published on .

Perry Goldschein
Perry Goldschein
Will green marketers be singing the blues following the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's long-awaited proposed revisions on Wednesday to its "Green Guides"? It's too early for a consensus on that, with initial comments running the gamut from little impact to predictions of far-reaching changes, especially by lawyers. It will probably be somewhere in between.

The FTC proposed, among other things, that marketers avoid blanket claims that a product is "environmentally friendly" or "eco-friendly" because these claims are "nearly impossible to substantiate" and are likely to suggest "specific and far-reaching" environmental benefits that few, if any, of the products have. The proposed changes also include new guidance on "renewable energy," "renewable materials" and "carbon offset" claims. The new guides generally advise companies that they will need "competent and reliable scientific evidence" to back up those claims.

The revised guides caution marketers not to use unqualified certifications or seals of approval—those that do not specify the basis for the certification through specific criteria. This will likely affect most of the more than 300 environmentally oriented certifications and seals. Moreover, third-party certification does not eliminate a marketer's obligation to have substantiation for all conveyed claims.

The proposed changes were provided as part of a 200-plus-page document, complete with an overview, background, and details of both claims that are and are not addressed by the guides. The FTC also provided a two-page PDF summarizing the proposed revisions. The agency seeks public comments on the proposed changes until Dec. 10, after which it will finalize the updates. Comments can be submitted here.

So What Should Green Marketers Do?
While the final document itself will not be legally enforceable, the FTC can take action if it deems a particular company's marketing as unfair or deceptive. Recent cases included three companies charged with making false claims that their products were biodegradable and clothing companies charged with deceptively labeling and advertising products as made of bamboo fiber using an environmentally friendly process.

Is there a need to panic? Give up the brilliant sustainability communications plans you're developing for 2011? Write off that large annual fee you paid your third-party eco-label(s) to use their logo?

No, no and no. Don't get me wrong: There will certainly be an impact and some work will need to be done. According to Datamonitor's Product Launch Analytics, this year alone, through Sept. 30, 1,110 package-goods products have been introduced with "biodegradable," "compostable," "eco-friendly" or "environmentally friendly" claims. Many if not most of those claims will need to be removed or modified, as well as those from prior years with the same or similar claims.

But in the meantime, here are some constructive ways to respond and continue to thrive in your sustainability communications efforts:

  • Participate and share your wisdom. The guidance issued is only a draft of the proposed revisions that are now subject to public comment. Do comment on them, providing your wisdom, so that the FTC's concerns can be met without overburdening the process of educating consumers about the issues.

    A strong argument can be made, for example, that continuing to educate the public on these matters should be balanced with credible, supportable language and claims. If the FTC's new guides were overly burdensome, it could stifle the dialogue that business and consumers are now having around sustainability. That's not in the public interest. There's sure to be plenty of opportunity to add wisdom around how terms and approaches specific to your industry or business can be addressed as well.

  • Keep in mind the FTC's simple premise. As stated by an official during this process, the FTC believes marketers should tell the truth and be able to substantiate their claims. Many greenwashers, it says, have not followed these simple guidelines.

    So review the proposed revisions closely; then be prepared to be as specific as possible when making claims as to a product's environmental impact. Make sure you can substantiate your claims with credible, reliable evidence around the environmental impact of your product. Your lawyer will then be your friend.

  • Work with your certifier. If you now work with a respected third-party certifier or seal, they should be participating in this process and starting to communicate with you about how any changes will affect a certification or seal and your use of it. However, you should be proactive in this relationship, as you are ultimately responsible for any claims, third party-certified or not.

    If you haven't already, also start looking at "safe" alternatives for having your brand or products recognized as more sustainable options. The federal government itself is actually responsible for many of the most popular environmentally oriented certifications, including EPA's Energy Star and other partnership programs that cover such topics as design, waste and water, and these often are available at little or no cost. Other popular certifications have significant credibility and make no specific environmental claims beyond the certifier's name (just specifications), such as "LEED"-certified buildings.

    Then gather such thoughts and participate in the EPA's process as it considers how to help further the success of "sustainable products."

  • Act and lead, don't just follow other marketers. Identify a sustainability problem that is relevant and material to your organization and/or industry and is not being adequately addressed—then take ownership of finding a solution.

    One example of that is Starbuck's search for a replacement for its disposable cups via a crowd-sourced campaign to develop ideas for the solution—its "Beta Cup" effort. Another is Timberland's placement of an "ingredient label" on its shoe boxes identifying the environmental impact of its products to educate and allow customers to make more informed decisions.

    These brands are leading on sustainability in a way that garners far more differentiation, credibility, buzz and good will than words or eco-labels ever could—and they're doing it without making any claims at all.

Perry Goldschein is a founding partner in SDialogue, an award-winning sustainability strategy, marketing and communications firm that's worked with clients of all sizes, from Ben & Jerry 's to Johnson & Johnson.
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