"General environmental claims pose problems where marketers make them without additional explanation or qualifications," the FTC said in a report accompanying the commission's new proposed guides to environmental marketing. What's more, the FTC said, simply putting the detailed information on the same Web page as the more generic phrase won't always suffice to qualify the claim.
The proposed guides, if adopted, likely would require some marketers to make significant changes to their online ad efforts, says Jeffrey Greenbaum, an expert in advertising law and a partner in Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz. He says that even online banner ads that draw in consumers with phrases like "eco-friendly" might subject marketers to liability.
"Advertisers have gotten used to using a shorthand to communicate 'I've got an environmentally friendly product,'" Greenbaum says. "The FTC is saying, you need to communicate what, specifically, is environmentally friendly."
The proposed guides would require marketers to make detailed disclosures about environmental claims. For instance, if a marketer wants to boast that a product is made with "renewable materials," the company also should provide specific information about the material, including what it is and why it's considered renewable, according to the new proposed guides.
The FTC also issued a report on Wednesday specifically looking at online marketers' environmental boasts. For that paper, staff reviewed 1,000 Web sites that contained at least one environmental claim.
The commission found that such Web pages often included stock phrases related to carbon use, renewability and general environmental benefits. "The prevalence of these terms and phrases suggests that they may have become part of the 'jargon' of environmental marketing, and to the extent consumer interpretation of their meaning is unclear, further guidance and education may be necessary to avoid deception in the marketplace."