Making a Green Claim: (Not) Waiting for the FTC Green Guides

Direct marketers and mailers making environmental claims have a number of resources available to them to help make such statements meaningful to consumers. The most important of those to U.S. marketers are the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides—officially titled “Guide for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims”—which were enacted in 1992, and updated in 1996 and 1998. In 2007, the FTC initiated a new effort to update the Green Guides once again—and here we are in 2012 still waiting for this next edition.

Direct marketers and mailers making environmental claims have a number of resources available to them to help make such statements meaningful to consumers. The most important of those to U.S. marketers are the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides—officially titled “Guide for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims”—which were enacted in 1992, and updated in 1996 and 1998. In 2007, the FTC initiated a new effort to update the Green Guides once again—and here we are in 2012 still waiting for this next edition.

The Green Guides, as currently written, give insight into use of such specific claims as biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content and ozone safe. While they are “guides,” they are enforceable. The FTC can and has brought forth cases where marketers’ claims did not measure up to the examples that pepper the Green Guides throughout.

In a recent Direct Marketing Association Compliance Series Webinar (February 14), DMA’s Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs, said there is no indication that the Green Guides‘ updates—promised some time ago—will be published shortly, or what might be holding them up. If there are differences of opinions among government scientists about certain claims or terminology, or if FTC staff have unresolved policy questions related to potentially new Green Guides content, the truth is we really just don’t know. However, the current iteration of the Green Guides certainly does give us good direction, which I’ll enumerate here.

First, as with any marketing claim—green or not—each claim must be “truthful,” “clear” and “substantiated.” Many of my colleagues know that “go green—go digital” claims many banks, utilities and financial service companies print on monthly statements are a pet peeve of mine. While I have no issue with persuading customers to switch to electronic statements, for those customers who want to, I do have a big problem with couching the digital migration as an environmental choice. Chances are the brand has made no effort to document the net environmental benefits of doing so. Just supposing that an e-statement “saves trees” is not substantiated, or, if there is an attempt to do so, it is largely based on spurious associations with deforestation, something that is not happening in North America. While I’m not a lawyer, I would be very wary about making such claims statements on a brand’s envelopes because of the FTC’s substantiation expectation.

Second, when making a marketing claim—on a mail piece, on packaging, on a product—it must be clear what the claim pertains to, as in the mail piece itself, the packaging itself or the product itself. For example, making a “recyclable” claim might be seen as deceptive if the packaging is recyclable, but the product it protects is not. Thus, be very clear with labels as to what the claim applies.

Next, we need to ensure claims are not overstated. For example, growing the amount of recycled content “by 50 percent” would be seen as deceptive if the content were to nudge from 2 percent to 3 percent. Similarly, making a “biodegradable” claim is highly suspect when an item destined to today’s air-tight and water-tight landfills largely stays there inert—it’s only biodegradable when it’s a piece of litter exposed to sunlight and the elements, hardly the intended end of life. Stating some item is “eco-safe” would be seen to be deceptive if there is no proof, or if it refers to one attribute of a product or item, as opposed to the product or item overall.

The term “recycled content” is important to consider because the FTC does not count material in the manufacturing process that is normally reused, and thus never first discarded as waste. Only if the material is recovered from the waste stream and reused may it be considered “recycled.” There are “pre-consumer,” “post-industrial” and “post-consumer” forms of recycled content, but in all cases, these types of labeled recycled content must be recovered from waste. Thus, it’s common to see recycled-content papers with labels such as “made with 100-percent recovered fiber, with 20-percent post-consumer content.”

Finally, though not part of the Green Guides, the FTC in a staff opinion gave the Direct Marketing Association and direct marketers the go-ahead to enable “recyclable” and “recycle please” messages on catalogs and direct mail pieces. That distinction in 2006 was important. Prior to the opinion, that type of label was not permissible, because even though mail or catalogs technically were recyclable, less than two-thirds of the nation’s households had local access to recycling collection programs for this material. Thus, it would be seen as deceptive if local facilities were non-existent. Even the qualified “recyclable where local facilities exist” would be seen as deceptive without having the two-thirds threshold in place first. Thankfully, we’ve met that threshold and now can implement consumer education programs such as DMA’s “Recycle Please” logo initiative (launched in 2007).

While we’ve seen a draft for public comment of the next Green Guides, the final draft is—as of this date—yet to come. Therefore, it’s probably not wise to guess as to what will be in the next version, or what will be left out. (To visit the October 2010 draft, go here: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/energy/about_guides.shtml )

As a communicator, I also have at least one other “green claims” resource—an organization called TerraChoice, now part of Underwriters Laboratory, which actually consults (or has consulted) with the FTC and the Canadian Standards Association, as well as many Fortune 500 brands. Its Web site, www.sinsofgreenwashing.org, documents seven “sins” of environmental marketing claims, sins such as hidden tradeoffs and no proof. In its most recent 2010 report, only 5 percent of consumer product claims were found to be “sin free,” which truth-be-told was an improvement over 2009!

Between the current edition of the FTC Green Guides, TerraChoice, and the DMA’s own Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice, direct marketers don’t have to wait around for the FTC to (finally) issue its next Green Guides rendition to make an honest, truthful environmental marketing claim. With Earth Day around the corner, just do some diligence to be sin-free and stop saying “Go Green, Go Digital”!

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