It's an inconvenient truth: Many of the environmental claims in advertisements and packaging are more about raking in the green than being green.
Aiming to clear up confusion for consumers about what various terms mean, the Federal Trade Commission has revised its guidelines for making claims about so-called "eco-friendly" products. The proposed new version of the agency's Green Guides was released Wednesday, with recommendations for when to use words like "degradable" and "carbon offset," in advertisements and packaging, and warnings about using certifications and seals of approval that send misleading messages.
"In recent years, businesses have increasingly used 'green' marketing to capture consumers' attention," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. "But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things."
The last update to the Green Guides was in 1998, so the guidelines don't address environmental claims not common then, like "renewable materials" and "renewable energy." The proposed update says companies should provide specifics about the materials and energy used to make sure consumers aren't confused.
The agency noted that consumers can also be misled by broad generic terms like "environmentally friendly," which are often interpreted to mean the product has specific environmental benefits. So the new guide cautions against making claims with such terms.
Likewise for certifications and seals of approval, which make up a whole section of the proposed revision, versus one page in the older version. Companies should only use these if there's a specific list of criteria used for the certification, the new guidelines say.
The new Green Guides generally advise companies that they will need "competent and reliable scientific evidence" to back up their claims.
While the document itself is not enforceable as law, the FTC can take action if it deems a particular company's marketing unfair or deceptive. Recent cases included three companies charged with making false claims that their products were biodegradable and clothing companies charged with deceptively labeling and advertising products as made of bamboo fiber using an environmentally friendly process.
The proposed guides were put together after a lengthy process that included public input from workshops and surveys, but consumers and others have another chance to submit comments through Dec. 10.