In a 2008 article in Natural Life Magazine, I wrote about the deception of greenwashing. I described how companies are exploiting consumers’ willingness to pay extra for green products by using bogus claims on their labels and in their advertising.
And now, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has introduced tighter rules on how manufacturers can label and advertise so-called green products. Under changes proposed last week, the commission’s revised “Green Guides” warn marketers against using labels that make broad claims that cannot be substantiated, like “eco-friendly.” Marketers will now have to qualify their claims on the product packaging and limit them to a specific benefit, such as how much of the product is recycled.
“What companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement to the media.
The changes include new guidance on marketers’ use of product certifications and seals of approval. There are currently over 300 seals and certifications for marketing green products around the world, with almost 100 used in North America alone. While the commission does not require the use of a specific label, it will consider the seals to be endorsements that should be substantiated by third party verification, which means legitimate certification agencies. Until now, companies have been free to create their own “seals” touting unspecified green claims and affix it them their packaging.
In 2008 and 2009, class-action lawsuits were filed against SC Johnson for using the “Greenlisttm” label on its Windex and Shout cleaning products and representing the label as being a third party certification when it was, in reality the company’s internal rating system. Although the case hasn’t been resolved, and it hasn’t been proven that SC Johnson did anything illegal, the FTC guidelines will prohibit such labels.
The proposed revised Guides provide new advice about carbon offset claims, which I’ve also written about in Natural Life Magazine. Carbon offsets fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in one place in order to counterbalance or “offset” emissions that occur elsewhere. In some cases, the projects involve tree planting, which doesn’t offset anything for 40 or more years – providing the trees even survive. So the updated Guides will advise marketers to disclose if the emission reductions that are being offset will not occur within two years.
The FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed changes until December 10, 2010, after which it will decide which changes to make final.