MARKETING

Is Your Product Really Eco-Friendly?

The FTC's revised guidelines for labeling products say that any claims -- such as being "degradable" -- need to be backed up with science or the agency may take action.

Corbis

It ain't easy being green -- or so the Federal Trade Commission hopes with its newly revised guidelines for labeling products as "eco-friendly."

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It ain't easy being green -- or so the Federal Trade Commission hopes with its newly revised guidelines for labeling products as "eco-friendly."

The agency has made it much harder for businesses to legitimately slap green labels on their products, saying any claims need to be rooted in science or the agency may take action.

"In recent years, businesses have increasingly used 'green' marketing to capture consumers' attention," said FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz. "But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things."

The new Green Guides advise companies that they will need "competent and reliable scientific evidence" to back up claims, along with recommendations for when to use words like "degradable" and "recyclable" in advertising and packaging. ("Degradable," for example, can only be employed if a product is capable of decomposing in a landfill within a year. To use the word "recyclable," the facilities needed to recycle it must be widely available – as opposed to only available in a few places with very good recycling programs.)

Green Guides aren't enforceable as law, but the FTC can take action if it decides a company's marketing is unfair or deceptive. Generally this takes the form of a cease and desist order, which can then become a fine if violations continue.

"Most companies really do want to comply," Leibowitz said. "They want to sell products in an environmentally friendly way. But for those companies that don't, that fall on the wrong side of the final Green Guides, we're going to go after them."

The Green Guides were last updated in 1998, meaning until now there were no guidelines about using now-common phrases like "renewable materials" and "renewable energy." The proposed update suggests companies provide specifics.

Certifications and seals of approval make up an entire section of the proposed revision, versus one page in the 1998 guidelines. This is partly because there are now hundreds of certifications, many of which are created by companies themselves purely for marketing.

It's "really noise in the system and you really don't know if they're created by the brands themselves or they're third-party certification programs," Chris Nelson, director of global commercial development for UL Environment, told the Chicago Tribune. UL Environment certifies environmental marketing claims.

The FTC recently took action against three companies for environmental claims, including labeling paper plates biodegradable and saying that textiles made from bamboo were "environmentally friendly." The FTC says claims must reflect normal use, and while a lone plate left outside might degrade, the rest are more likely to end up in a landfill, where nothing degrades quickly. As for bamboo being environmentally friendly—yes, it can be used to make rayon, which was the fabric in question, but the manufacturing process itself is hardly good for the environment.

Last updated: Oct 7, 2010

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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