After about five years of review, the FTC finally published its final Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims last month. Commonly known as the "Green Guides," this lengthy set of rules is intended to be official "advice" to marketers about how best to support and communicate the most common environmental marketing claims without deceiving consumers. While the FTC maintains that the Guides are not binding law, history shows that the FTC is quite willing to sue companies that ignore such guides. Those cases can be painful and costly to marketers, who therefore should pay close attention.
The new Guides provide specific recommendations for how to make all sorts of common environmental marketing claims, exhaustively highlighting the kinds of proof that marketers must have before the claims can be made. Despite more than 300 pages of rules, guidance and commentary, however, the FTC did not specify rules for what may be the most common environmental marketing claim of all: "sustainable."
Environmental "sustainability" claims are everywhere in the media, touting both existing environmental accomplishments and future aspirations. This is because they are proven to create positive feelings for marketers and their products. For example, a 2009 study by the University of Leeds demonstrated how BP's "Beyond Petroleum" campaign increased positive consumer associations with the brand. This was, ironically, shortly before the Deepwater Horizon disaster summarily wiped out those gains.
True sustainability improvements are not just window-dressing, however. Reductions in raw-materials usage, reduced waste and emissions, and reduced energy consumption can have a major positive effect on the corporate bottom line. Many sustainability improvements are also being driven by increasingly stringent laws as well as by purchasing requirements that favor products produced with a smaller environmental footprint.
This is why many companies have entire departments devoted to sustainability, employ chief sustainability officers, and publish annual sustainability reports.