New FTC Environmental Marketing Guidelines – First Impressions…

After a series of hearings and two years of anticipation, the FTC today issued much-needed updated guidance on how to responsibly market and advertise the environmental impact of products.

The top line is this: If a company wants to make a claim, it has to provide data at point of purchase to prove the claim. This means no more general claims, like “We're eco friendly,” unless the marketer defines exactly how, with facts, on the package.

The Commission is proposing to tighten rules for claims about a product’s degradability – by saying how fast something has to degrade and by banning use of the term if a product is headed for a landfill or incinerator.

The FTC also wants to limit the use of the word “recyclable” to describe a product; if recycling programs aren’t widely available where the product is sold, the marketing needs to admit that.

There are similar newly proposed requirements for more specifics around third party environmental “seals of approval,” and claims that products are “free of” certain ingredients or are made with renewable materials or renewable energy.

Here at Cone, overall, we think the Commission's proposed changes are a step in the right direction to solve a problem about which we filed comment to the FTC in its 2008 workshops. We know first-hand from doing environmental communications for companies and from our research that consumers are interested in environmental messages, but are confused about and often misunderstand what those messages mean.

By requiring companies to provide proof of claims, and to provide it at point of purchase, the FTC is taking a step toward helping consumers better understand whether something is good – or just less bad – for the environment and whether the benefit can actually happen when they dispose of the package.

There are, however, some holes in what the Commission is proposing. For example, they did not directly take on the word “sustainable,” one of the most overused and poorly understood environmental marketing terms.  

There will no doubt be much debate about the FTC's proposed revisions in the weeks to come. The Commission is welcoming public comment until mid December and then hopes to issue a final version of the new Green Guides by the middle of 2011. Those will then become the “guardrails” for how future marketing on environmental issues can take place.

- Mike Lawrence, Chief Reputation Officer & EVP


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