FTC Green Guides: Will the New Guides Help Consumers Understand Green Claims?

For the first time since 1998, the Federal Trade Commission has released updated environmental marketing guidelines. The FTC Green Guides lay down parameters for the types of environmental claims companies can make about their products. The Green Guides were developed to provide further clarity for shoppers, but how do the new Green Guides compare to real consumer expectations? WDYSF takes a look, comparing the new guidelines with the 2012 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker, which measured consumer expectations of companies making environmental claims.

The new Green Guides seek to address persistent consumer confusion, cautioning marketers against making broad environmental claims like "eco-friendly" or "green" that are difficult to substantiate. Findings from Cone's 2012 Green Gap Trend Tracker demonstrate the ongoing need for clarity. In fact, more than half of consumers surveyed (54%) erroneously believe common environmental marketing terms such as "green" or "environmentally friendly" indicate a product has a positive (36%) or neutral (18%) impact on the environment. Just 25 percent of consumers correctly identify those terms as meaning the product has a lighter impact than other similar products, and significantly less – only 3 percent – understand the claim to mean the product has less of an impact than a previous version.

According to the 2012 Green Gap Trend Tracker, Americans' purchases are highly influenced by environmental symbols or certifications (81%) and specific messages about products' environmental impacts or benefits (80%). Although Cone's research finds consumers demand such certifications and specific data, the Green Guidelines advise companies that seals and certifications must be applied with caution. According to the FTC, such communications can be considered endorsements and therefore subject to the commission's Endorsement Guides. Although badges are often effective ways to communicate product benefits, companies are now required to ensure all certifications clearly explain environmental advantages.

Experts have praised the Green Guides as another step toward honest and transparent environmental marketing, but there's still work to be done. The new guidelines neglect making recommendations on common labels such as "sustainable," "natural" and "organic" (although organic products are already subject to regulation by The Department of Agriculture). With more than 400environmental seals currently on the market and vague environmental claims on hundreds of packages, only time will tell the true effectiveness of the Guides to significantly reduce consumer confusion and increase company transparency.

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