Meander down an aisle in any grocery store (even Wal-Mart) and one is likely to see the terms ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’, ‘recyclable’, ‘recycled content’, and ‘ozone safe’ leaping out from the packaging of dozens of different products.
To the average shopper, these terms often resonate in a positive way, leading them to choose one product over another. Few realize that many companies choose these vague terms intentionally, while failing to back them up with any real environmental action.
Greenwashing watchdogs have continually pointed out that without strict regulations about the meaning of these terms, corporations are able to legally poach them for marketing purposes without fear of punishment.
To better inform consumers, and to strike fear into the hearts of would-be greenwashers, the Federal Trade Commission is considering a complete overhaul of its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly known as the “Green Guides.”
The Green Guides outline general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims, as well stating rules for interpreting specific terms in context.
The FTC issued the Guides in 1992, and updated them in 1996 and 1998, but the acceleration of green marketing claims in the past decade have left them in sore need of another revision.
In February, the FTC issued warning letters to 78 major companies nationwide suspected of breaking the law by selling clothing and other textile products that are labeled and advertised as “bamboo,” but actually are made of manufactured rayon fiber.
A complete list of Commission enforcement actions related to environmental marketing claims brought between 1990 and 2000 can be found here.
So far, a series of three workshops have been held to access public opinion on the current Green Guides, and the changes in consumer perception of environmental claims.
The 2010 update is expected to feature new guidance for marketing carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates, green packaging, textiles, building products, and buildings.
In the meantime, consumers can download two FTC guidance brochures, “Sorting out ‘Green’ Advertising Claims” and “Eco-Speak: A User’s Guide to the Language of Recycling.“
For businesses, the FTC has issued a brochure, “Complying With the Environmental Marketing Guides” that provides an overview of responsible environmental marketing claims.
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