FTC: Beware of 'eco-friendly' labeling

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a revised set of green guidelines designed to help marketers ensure the truthfulness of their claims about the environmental attributes of their products. The updates to the existing “Green Guides” include new sections on the use of carbon offsets, green certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials.

Specifically, the guides apply to environmental claims included in labeling, advertising, promotional materials and all other forms of marketing, whether asserted directly or by implication. Although these are not enforceable regulations, the guidelines could be used as a determination in FTC actions or other legal challenges involving a marketer's claim about the attributes of a particular product.

Among other modifications, the guides caution marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that a product is "environmentally friendly" or "eco-friendly." The FTC's consumer perception study confirms that such claims are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits. Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate.

The Guides also contain new sections on: 1) certifications and seals of approval; 2) carbon offsets, 3) free-of claims, 4) non-toxic claims, 5) made with renewable energy claims, and 6) made with renewable materials claims.

The new section on certifications and seals of approval, for example, emphasizes that certifications and seals may be considered endorsements that are covered by the FTC's endorsement guides. The Guides caution marketers not to use environmental certifications or seals that don't clearly convey the basis for the certification, because such seals or certifications are likely to convey general environmental benefits.

Finally, either because the FTC lacks a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance or wants to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules or guidance of other agencies, the Guides do not address use of the terms "sustainable," "natural" and "organic."

For a full copy of the revised Green Guides, click here.

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