FTC Says: If You Say a Product is Green, Be Able To Prove It

When a product says it’s good for the environment, how do you know if that’s true? Green – Environmentally safe – Eco friendly – are just a few of the claims we see, and what, exactly, do they mean?

For the first time since 1998, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is trying to clarify that with its updated Green Guides – its message is: if you say a product is "green," you better be able to prove it.

The guidelines – approved unanimously – are designed to help marketers ensure the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive, says the FTC. They provide definitions of commonly used phrases, like non-toxic, biodegradable, compostable, VOC-free, recyclable, recycled, and made with renewable energy.

FTC’s new guidelines reflect a wide range of public input, including hundreds of consumer and industry comments on previously proposed revisions. Besides updating existing Guides, there are new sections that cover use of carbon offsets, green certifications and seals, non-toxic, made with renewable energy and renewable materials claims.

It doesn’t cover the terms "sustainable," "natural," and "organic," however – some of the most commonly used vague and misleading terms. The FTC says they’re left out either because it could contradict or duplicate rules from other agencies (USDA governs "organic"; FDA covers personal care and thus "natural") or because it doesn’t have sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance.

"The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them," says FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated. The FTC’s changes to the Green Guides will level the playing field for honest business people and it is one reason why we had such broad support."

FTC cautions marketers about making broad, unqualified claims, such as "environmentally friendly" because few products have such far-reaching environmental benefits, which are nearly impossible to substantiate.

The Guides:

  • advise marketers not to make an unqualified degradable claim for a solid waste product unless they can prove the entire product or package completely breaks down and returns to nature within one year after customary disposal;
  • caution that items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year, so marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for these items
  • caution marketers not to use environmental certifications or seals that don’t clearly convey the basis for the certification, because such seals or certifications are likely to convey general environmental benefits.

First issued in 1992, the guides are intended to help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims. They were revised in 1996 and 1998.

In the past, FTC has taken action against claims it found deceptive related to recyclability, biodegradable, bamboo, and environmental certification claims.

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