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Backing Up Your Green Claims

Today’s post comes from one of my favorite sources of information, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. In these days of greenwashing, consumers certainly need the protection. This is a short and sweet article on what exactly is required of companies that want to let the world know how eco their product or business is – namely that you back it up with some serious scientific evidence.

The Grass is Always Greener
By Lesley Fair

These days, more Americans than ever say that environmental considerations factor in to what they buy.  When companies offer greener options – and substantiate their claims about a product’s impact on the environment – it’s a win-win-win proposition for buyers, sellers, and the planet.  But when consumers are confused by deceptive green promises, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sees red.

Recent FTC law enforcement actions emphasize the importance of backing up claims with solid science.  For example, in its settlement with Kmart, the FTC alleged that paper plates sold by the retail giant under the “American Fare” brand name were prominently labeled as biodegradable.  In fact, about ninety percent of total municipal solid waste in the United States is disposed of either in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities―methods that don’t present conditions for paper plates to completely break down and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time.

When it comes to evaluating your own environmental claims, here are some tips on staying on the right side of the law.

  • The song remains the same.  No matter how much the environmental lyrics may change, the song remains the same.  Companies must back up all express and implied representations conveyed to reasonable consumers with competent and reliable evidence.  For green claims, that usually means tests, analyses, research, studies, or other objective evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the field.
  • The hard truth about the soft sell.   Some companies try to get around substantiation requirements by nixing specific terminology – “recyclable,” “degradable,” and the like – in favor of what they perceive to be softer representations.  But there’s a catch:  An unqualified “eco-friendly” claim may convey to consumers a much stronger representation about a product’s environmental benefits than the advertiser intended to convey.  Thus, specific claims may actually be easier for advertisers to substantiate than vague “good for the earth” promises.
  • It’s a package deal.   Check your packaging materials for environmental representations printed on them by the companies that supply your boxes, mailing supplies, etc.  Their claims become your claims, so it’s wise to make sure they’re complying with the law.
  • Getting green guidance.  The FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims – the Green Guides – explains how familiar truth-in-advertising principles apply to green claims.  Follow the latest developments at business.ftc.gov.

Jennifer Stewart is the Office Manager and wanna-be organizational psychologist at Modern Species. For more posts from her, click here.

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Of course, no man is entirely
in his right mind at any time.- Mark Twain