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Advertisers Beware: It’s Not Easy Being ‘Green’ When Regulators Are Watching
Authors: Bryan P. Collins, Ariana Gallisá

7/1/2010

A store in San Francisco recently received a makeover: a new coat of ecru-colored paint, a large green-colored logo and the addition of the term GREEN to its previous store name. Granted, in San Francisco “green” may have another connotation (especially when the store is run by a suspiciously relaxed hippie), but in this case it is clear that this store has made a commitment to providing environment-friendly goods and services. Or has it really?

Within the last decade, there has been an ever-burgeoning increase in “greenwashing,” an attempt by providers to present their goods and services as environment-friendly, eco-conscious or environmentally responsible. In an attempt to reach mindful and enlightened consumers, companies are finding ways to describe their products and services as good for the environment and the future, or at the very least, not as evil as all those other guys. Unfortunately, some of these claims really do not amount to much more than a superficial change in the color-scheme. What few seem to realize is that jumping on the “GREEN” band-wagon comes with responsibilities and commitments.

Unsubstantiated Greening Will Incite Action by the FTC
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is charged with protecting consumer interests and preventing unfair and deceptive business practices. As such, the FTC is the main watchdog against false advertising and has the authority to bring enforcement actions against those that make unsubstantiated and/or deceptive claims.

For example, in 2009 the FTC brought actions against four clothing and textile sellers that claimed their products were made of bamboo fiber using an environmentally friendly process that retained the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant. Several companies also claimed the products were biodegradable and would return to nature after a reasonably short time. In reality, the fabrics were made of rayon, a man-made fiber that is created by treating plant cellulose with harsh and toxic chemicals that release hazardous air pollutants. Thus far, three of the companies have agreed to settlements under which they are barred from making any of the above green claims, but which do allow the companies to describe their products as “rayon made from bamboo” as long as this statement is true and could be substantiated. For a full report, see http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/08/bamboo.shtm.

The FTC has taken other actions against companies that have used the following claims and buzz words in their advertising: pesticide free, ecologically safe, ecologically safe aerosol spray, ozone safe, ozone friendly, degradable, safe for the environment, environmentally friendly, compostable, environmentally responsible, recyclable etc.

At a minimum, the FTC requires that green marketing, like all other forms of marketing, be truthful, not misleading, and substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence so that consumers can make informed decisions about the products and services they buy. Beyond this, marketers can find guidance on specific green claims such as biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content, and ozone safe in the “Guide for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims” (referred to simply as the Green Guides) issued by the FTC in 1992, revised in 1996 and 1998, and under current review.

In addition to barring unsubstantiated claims or slogans, the FTC Green Guides also bar the use of deceptively green brand names, which would mislead consumers and create a false impression regarding a quality or attribute of the goods or services.

To read this publication in its entirety, click the link in the adjacent "Downloads" section.

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