The FTC Green Guides: What You Need To Know

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 11/21/2012

A good rule of thumb is “if you doubt, take it out.” After all, its better to remove the claim than have the FTC publicly file a complaint on your business.

November 19 2012

by Martha Wampler, GreenBiz

We’ve been asked a few times for our point of view on the new FTC Green Guides, and it essentially boils down to this: We’re thrilled that the FTC is working to make claims clearer for consumers (we see a tremendous amount of confusion in our studies about certain terms and claims), and we hope the FTC will go a bit further in the future. For instance, we’d love to see them tackle the term “natural,” given the amount of consumer confusion we see about that.

As for what’s on tap in the new guidelines, you can see the full version of the FTC Green Guides by clicking this link, but here are some key points:

General Claims: Terms like “green” or “eco-friendly” are deemed too broad and difficult to substantiate. Avoid them.
Certifications/Seals of Approval: You’ll need to specify if the certifications on your products are from an industry trade group, and you’ll have to substantiate any claims that come with the certification.
Degradable: You can only say a product is degradable if it can completely decompose in one year.
Compostable: To be called compostable, your product must break down in “approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted” – and no toxins can be released in the process. You must also clearly indicate the limited extent of composting programs available.
Recyclable: Recycling claims can only be made if the entire product or package is recyclable and recycling facilities are available to a substantial majority (e.g., 60 percent) of residents in the communities where the product is sold. Otherwise, you must qualify recyclable claims based on the percentage of consumers or communities that have access to recycling facilities.
Recycled Content: You must indicate the specific percentage of recycled materials in the product if it is less than 100 percent.
Renewable Energy: Unless a product is made with 100 percent renewable energy, you will have to calculate and provide the percentage. Additionally, if your company produces renewable energy but sells its renewable energy credits (RECs), you cannot say you use renewable energy in the production process.
Carbon Offsets: You will need scientific evidence to support carbon offset claims, but don’t advertise them if carbon offsets are required by law for your business. You should also disclose if the emission reductions that are being offset by a consumer’s purchase will not occur within two years.
Renewable Materials: Some consumers may misinterpret renewable materials to mean a product was made with recycled content, is recyclable, and/or is biodegradable, so you should provide specific information about what the renewable materials are, how it fits the definition of renewable, and its sourcing. An example of an acceptable claim would be, “Made from 100 percent rapidly renewable bamboo grown in China.”
Ozone-Safe and Ozone-Free Claims: The guides state that it is deceptive to claim a product, package or service is safe for the ozone layer or atmosphere.
Source Reduction Claims: You should qualify and substantiate source reduction claims as needed. For example, marketers could claim “10 percent less waste” than the previous version only if they can substantiate that the product’s disposal results in a 10 percent reduction of waste by weight or volume in the solid waste stream.
Refillable Claims: If you’re going to say something is “refillable,” you must provide the means to refill the package. This means you will have to either sell a product that will refill the original package or have a system to collect and refill it.
Free-Of: Even though certain “free-of” claims may be true, they could be considered deceptive if other substances within the product pose the same or similar environmental risks. It would also be considered misleading if you say a product is “free-of” a substance that has never been associated with that product’s category.
Non-Toxic: The FTC considers that the claim “non-toxic” implies that an item is non-toxic to both humans and the environment, so you need “competent and reliable scientific evidence” that it is non-toxic to both the environment and humans.

Again, clarity on terms like “sustainable,” “natural” and “organic” were not addressed in this go-round. While some may say that leaves the door open to a variety of definitions and potentially deceptive marketing, the FTC has made it abundantly clear that broad, non-specific claims are misleading. The most important things to remember as you market your green products is to be specific and clear, and to substantiate your claims. Review the “green” claims on your products or packaging, and make sure you have enough supporting evidence for the claim. If the claim could be considered ambiguous, include additional language to specify limitations or parameters for the claim. A good rule of thumb is “if you doubt, take it out.” After all, its better to remove the claim than have the FTC publicly file a complaint on your business.