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FTC Green Guide Adapts to the Times

It would be an understatement to say the industry would benefit from a revision of recommendations for the proper marketing of environmental claims. A quick look around a store in any channel today reveals any number of products or services hyping an environmentally friendly message. From product packaging to the factories making the products, green is everywhere.

For the most part the efforts are sincere, if difficult to explain. A supermarket I recently visited in the Price Chopper chain in September had numerous back-of-the-house systems designed to conserve power and recycle energy, including a 400-watt natural gas fuel cell that allows the 60% store to operate off of the power grid. Another device turns organic scraps from the fresh departments into grey water (and eventually compost).

The average consumer never sees the effort — nor do they necessarily get the message. This requires companies to do some creative thinking: How can we translate terribly dry, technically complicated schematics into a catchy image or simple explanation?

Oftentimes, such efforts are akin to writing a haiku version of War and Peace. And this is where trouble can start. The process of boiling down the deep details gives rise to the temptation to summarize, generalize and sometimes, stretch the truth.

Now, here’s a fact that somewhat surprised me: The Federal Trade Commission issued its first Green Guides back in 1992 — long before going green became vogue. The guides were updated in 1996 and again two years later, but since then, nothing.

Now, the agency is soliciting public input as it prepares to issue the fourth volume of suggested rules. Foremost among them is the warning to avoid making blanket, general claims that a product is ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘eco-friendly’. The fear is that consumers might credit these products with unwarranted properties.

“Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate,” the FTC wrote.

Just as important, the new guides will caution marketers from employing dubious or nonexistent certifications in order to bolster the green image of their products. Likewise, all marketers looking for certification should be sure to vet any organizations or agencies offering seals of approval.

These caveats might sound redundant and obvious, but the FTC understands there’s a lot of pressure on companies to jump on the eco-bandwagon right now. Green is good. Greed is not.