FTC proposes clampdown on green claims

An update to "Green Guides" for consumer products seeks to mitigate false environmental claims for products, packaging, and carbon offsets.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
2 min read

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday proposed a revision to its Green Guides for consumer products that would include strict regulations on the environmental claims made by companies.

The 229-page proposal (PDF) includes a wide variety of regulations as to what companies may say in marketing materials about the eco-friendly attributes of products, packaging, or services.

Federal Trade Commission

The newly proposed version of the Green Guides, which has not been updated since 1998, would include stricter rules for the use of certificates and seals of approval. It also includes new regulations on using terms like compostable, degradable, ozone-friendly, ozone-safe, non-toxic, and recyclable.

For example, if the new Green Guides are implemented, from now on, in order for a product or packaging to legally be labeled "degradable," the item must take no longer than one year to reach complete decomposition. Companies will also have to qualify if only a portion of the product or packaging is degradable.

While the FTC has been trying to educate the public on green advertising claims, it seems like it still suspects that the average consumer may not realize that companies might use the word "degradable" to stretch the truth about products. After all, even plastics are technically degradable at some point, but take decades for them to break down.

"Marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities because decomposition will not occur within one year," the FTC said in its proposal.

Companies will also have to provide proof to substantiate the claims.

Another example under the proposed guides is that a company could not say a product is "made with renewable energy" if the "power used to manufacture any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels," according to the FTC.

A company making such claims would also have to make public the information on where or how it's getting its renewable energy. Companies that use renewable energy but then sell their renewable energy certificates (RECs), or companies that buy RECs as offsets but operate on fossil fuels, may not make the claim.

The changes are clearly intended for consumer protection, but some also seem to be geared toward curbing unfair business practices among competitors.

Take the proposed "free of" regulation, for example.

Under the new Green Guides, a company may not say a product is "free of" something if the "substance has never been associated with that product category," according to the FTC.

So a company, perhaps looking to one-up a competitor, under the new regulation could not just randomly label a product as "free of mercury" or "free of lead" if mercury and lead were never in products of that nature to begin with.

Keep in mind these new changes are not yet in effect.

The FTC has made a formal "request for public comment" on the new Green Guides. People can contribute suggestions or comments on the changes between now and December 10, after which it will make a final decision and implement the new guide.