FTC: Two paint companies mislead consumers over VOC content

Sherwin-Williams and PPG Architectural Coatings, two of the industry’s leading paint manufacturers, have agreed to settle a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charge that they misled consumers to believe that some of their paints are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

According to an FTC press release, Sherwin-Williams and PPG make their “zero-VOC” claims through a variety of media, including brochures, point-of-purchase marketing, product labels and the Internet. Some of these materials are disseminated to independent distributors. The FTC contends that consumers most likely interpret the companies’ “zero-VOC” claims as applying to the final product -- tinted paint.

In many instances, the FTC said, both Sherwin-Williams’s Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG’s Pure Performance paints contain more than trace levels of VOCs after the base paint is tinted. The complaints also charge the companies with distributing promotional materials that provided independent retailers with the means to deceptively advertise that the companies’ paints contain zero VOCs.

The proposed consent orders settling the FTC’s charges are the same for both Sherwin-Williams and PPG. First, they prohibit the companies from claiming that their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter, or the companies have competent and reliable scientific evidence that the paint contains no more than trace levels of VOCs. The definition of “trace” comes from the “trace amount” test included in the FTC’s recently released updated Green Guides for environmental marketing claims.

The FTC agreement will also require the companies to clearly and prominently disclose that the “zero VOC” claims apply only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise. In cases where the tinted paint’s VOC level could be 50 grams per liter or more, the proposed orders require the companies to disclose that the VOC level may increase “significantly” or “up to [the highest possible VOC level after tinting].” In addition, the orders prohibit the companies from making any VOC claim or other environmental claim unless it is true and not misleading, and unless the companies have competent scientific evidence to back it up.

Finally, the proposed orders prohibit both Sherwin-Williams and PPG from providing anyone, including independent retailers or distributors, with the means of making any of the prohibited deceptive claims. The orders also would require the companies to send letters to retailers requiring them to remove all ads for the covered paints that have “zero VOC” claims and putting corrective stickers on current paint cans making these claims. 

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