Are The FTC’s New Green Guides Still Too Confusing?

Greenwashing is big business. In case you’re not familiar with the term, it typically means using false or misleading “green” claims for marketing purposes. Knowing that there’s a big market for eco-friendly goods and services, many companies have taken to marketing terms like “recycled,” “non-toxic”, and “biodegradable” just to make a quick buck.

The Federal Trade Commission is charged with holding companies accountable when they use false claims, as well as educating consumers about how to question the labels. In 2010, the FTC released “Green Guides” in an attempt to discourage greenwashing, but companies complained that the guides were too confusing. After two years of revision, the agency just released the new and improved resources. Most industries praise the updates, but some worry the language is still too confusing.


Image via FTC

In general, the updated Green Guides say marketers should not make broad, unqualified environmental benefit claims about a product being green or eco-friendly, and should have reliable scientific evidence to support any carbon offset claims. The new Guides also attempt to establish new rules for those who want to market products or packaging as biodegradable.

The Plastics Environmental Council recently complained that a Consumer Resports review failed to distinguish between unqualified and qualified claims of biodegradability. The review praised the FTC’s definition of a degradable product or package as one that breaks down completely within a year of being deposited in a landfill. The PEC claims that the one year time limit on biodegradability is unsubstantiated, and criticizes Consumer Reports for omitting the fact that there is an exception for qualified claims .

“This is a serious misconception,” PEC executive director Charles Lancelot said, citing scientific studies that show common wastes, including food and newspaper, take many years, even decades, to biodegrade in landfills, the PEC said. This means that the requirement to provide qualified claims clearly stating the rate and extent of biodegradation of plastic packaging or products puts them on the same footing as any other common waste, Lancelot said.

Have you ever used the Green Guides to cut through the chatter of greenwashing? Do you think the allowance for qualified and unqualified claims of biodegradability are still too confusing? Tell us in a comment!


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