FTC updates ad guidelines for ‘green’ products

By Eileen AJ Connelly
Associated Press / October 7, 2010

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NEW YORK — It’s an inconvenient truth: Many of the environmental claims in advertisements and packaging are more about raking in the green than being green.

Aiming to clear up confusion for consumers about what various terms mean, the Federal Trade Commission has revised its guidelines for businesses that make claims about so-called eco-friendly products.

The proposed new version of the agency’s Green Guides was released yesterday, with recommendations for when to use words such as degradable and carbon offset in advertisements and packaging, and warnings about using certifications and seals of approval that send misleading messages.

“In recent years, businesses have increasingly used ‘green’ marketing to capture consumers’ attention,’’ said FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things.’’

The last update to the Green Guides was in 1998, so the existing guidelines don’t address environmental claims that are common today such as renewable materials and renewable energy.

The proposed update says companies should provide specifics about the materials and energy used in manufacturing, to make sure customers aren’t confused.

The agency noted that consumers can also be misled by broad generic terms such as environmentally friendly, which are often interpreted to mean the product has specific environmental benefits. So the new guide cautions against making claims with such terms.

Likewise for certifications and seals of approval, which make up a whole section of the proposed revision, versus one page in the older version. Companies should only use these if there’s a specific list of criteria used for the certification, the new guidelines say.

The new Green Guides generally advise companies that they will need “competent and reliable scientific evidence’’ to back up their claims. While the Green Guides are not enforceable as law, the FTC can take action if it deems a particular company’s marketing unfair or deceptive.

The lack of specific rules for how companies should make environmental claims shows how complicated some of these issues can be, said Lew Rose, an advertising and marketing lawyer with Kelley Drye & Warren in Washington.

“In a perfect world, they would prefer a clear set of rules, but in this area, what I think these guides reflect is a recognition by the FTC that it’s impossible to do that, without creating more problems than you’re resolving,’’ he said.