Feds Move to Limit Greenwashing

A leading consumer watchdog is backing proposed tougher government guidance on environmental claims in marketing, but said the revisions would be meaningless if regulators fail to “come down quickly and forcefully on advertisers who lie.”

Proposed changes to the government’s Green Guides — summarized here — are the first since 1998. As anyone who breathes knows, they come at a time when environmental friendliness has become a cornerstone of product and service marketing. Based on research that shows consumers are baffled by most green assertions, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to prohibit use of sweeping environmental claims, insisting that marketers “limit the claim to a specific benefit.” Additional targets include use of certifications and seals of approval, and the vague reliance on terms like renewable energy, renewable materials, compostable, degradable and even carbon offset.

image via GreenwashingIndex.com

For instance, marketers would not be able to make a blanket renewable energy claim “if the power used to manufacture any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels,” the agency said. And on those ubiquitous carbon offset claims, companies would be barred from making them if “the emission reductions that are being offset by a consumer’s purchase will not occur within two years,” or “if the activity that produces the offset is already required by law.”

Greenwashing Index, a joint effort of EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, saluted those moves. But in a press release, Kevin Tuerff, cofounder of EnviroMedia, expressed disappointment that “sustainable” isn’t among the terms addressed in the guidelines. The FTC said “natural” and “organic” are also not on its hit list, noting that such claims are covered by Department of Agriculture regulations.

EnviroMedia said it will take part in the FTC Green Guides public comment period. “FTC Green Guides enforcement can’t happen quickly enough,” cofounder Valerie Davis said. “Meanwhile, consumers should buy only products that make verifiable environmental claims.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.