FTC Alters Legal Requirements for Marketing to Consumers

Now more than ever, consumers consider the environmental consequences of their purchases. But what qualifies a product for a “green” designation?

Recent revisions to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides include a number of modifications addressing environmental marketing claims that businesses must understand in order to stay competitive in an increasingly environmentally conscious marketplace.

The FTC Green Guides

One trip down a grocery aisle or one commercial break during the ballgame makes it clear: to succeed in today’s marketplace, a business must market the environmental benefits of its products. Whether a product is truly “green” is relative to the circumstances. All products use energy and resources, and all products create waste. How, then, can a business market the environmental benefits of its products without overstating the true impact?

The FTC has intervened to clarify what may be said about a product’s environmental impact. The FTC recently revised its Green Guides, adopting a more holistic approach to review environmental marketing claims. The guides are not agency rules or regulations, but rather help the agency in determining whether environmental claims are misleading and deceptive. If claims are determined to be misleading and deceptive, the agency can take enforcement action, which can lead to fines or FTC orders that prohibit deceptive advertising. The guides make a number of modifications to older guidelines and contain new sections to address developing issues.

“Environmentally friendly” and “eco-friendly” products

The revised guides caution businesses not to make broad claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly.” Consumer protection studies show that when a consumer sees such broad claims, the consumer internalizes that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits. Instead, the guides instruct businesses to qualify general claims with specific environmental benefits, allowing consumers to better understand the consequences of their purchases.

To avoid further confusion, the guides warn not to highlight small or unimportant benefits. For example, a lawn mower manufacturer advertises its new line of lawn mowers as more eco-friendly due to increased fuel efficiency. In fact, the lawn mower manufacturer has increased the fuel efficiency by 0.1 percent. The manufacturer’s claim is technically correct, but the advertisement would likely convey a false impression of significantly increased fuel efficiency and broad environmental benefits.

Recyclable or degradable products

The revised guides also caution businesses that claim their products are recyclable or degradable. A business may make an unqualified claim that a product is degradable only if it can be proven that the entire product will completely break down within a reasonably short period, which the FTC considers to be one year after disposal.

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