FTC's Updated Green Claim Regs: Bull's Eye In Letter And Spirit

Jonathan Franzen, move over. My new bedside read is a riveting, 225-page, non-fiction page-turner: Proposed Revisions to the Green Guides. Self published by the Federal Trade Commission, available free wherever you can log on.

This is one long-overdue sequel, updating guidelines first issued in 1992 -- green marketing's Stone Age -- geared to help companies and brands make true and substantiated environmental claims. As a marketer of 100% recycled household paper products, I battle greenwashing every day, often fueled by huge competitors' steroidal budgets. So when word leaked this summer revisions were coming, I saw light on the horizon.

When they landed last month, I breathed out -- way out. The FTC got it right, in letter and spirit. The proposed changes call greenwashers on their every bluff, from blanket claim-making to rampant abuse of certifications and seals. Not just ones concocted in-house by marketers, but also those provided by third parties.

Among numerous sound proposals, the FTC advises marketers against making unqualified general environmental benefit claims, calling them "difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate." Going further, it says qualifications should be clear and prominent, limited to a specific benefit. In practical terms, my interpretation: buh-bye Earth Friendly, Greener & Better and your myriad cousins.

What I love even more than these guideposts is how the FTC arrived at them: through smart consumer research, approaching the task like marketers themselves. The commission's press release cites research data linking blanket environmental claims to widespread confusion among consumers.

The findings echo those of Kiwi magazine in research it conducted for my brand, Marcal Small Steps, revealing 62% of American moms believe between 25% and 50% of household paper products are made from 100% recycled paper. Reality: that number stands at 2%. The FTC's research shines a bright light on why such a huge chasm exists between my category's perception and reality.

Moving beyond claims, you don't have to be a research geek -- just someone who likes fair play -- to appreciate the FTC's proposed guidance on green certifications, seals and other endorsement devices.

Similar to its treatment of blanket claims, the FTC effectively paints unqualified usage of certifications and seals as overreaching in conveying environmental benefits, and again calls for specifics. The commission urges an end to the unbridled use of seals invented by marketers in-house, unless "clear and prominent qualifying language (is used) to alert consumers that (a marketer) created the certifying program."

Going a vital next step, the FTC proposes requiring marketers to disclose any paid relationship (or other material connection) between itself or its brands and an otherwise independent certifying entity or endorsee. The new guidelines also call foul in the long-running name game, where consumers are led to confuse an independent-sounding but dues-supported industry trade group for a truly arms-length certifying organization.

Do I have my own selfish reasons for hoping, praying these new guidelines go live once the 60-day comment period ends? Guilty as charged. But really, how can you reasonably argue against cleaning up green marketing's Wild West? Nothing less than the environmental consumerism movement writ large is at risk, as increasingly green-weary, overly wary, fool-me-twice consumers are pushed to a "what's the point" precipice. If they stop opening their wallets to products that make a real difference, shame on us all.

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