Though the publication of the revised Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “Green Guides” has been significantly delayed, many industries continue to address the sustainability movement and green marketing claims are becoming more common in the marketplace. Unfortunately, more green claims can lead to increased greenwashing and the subsequent consumer and legal backlash. As such, a basic understanding of the FTC guide may help manufacturers fulfill market needs and avoid potential litigation-much like the situation currently facing the U.S. Green Building Council involving energy usage claims and the LEED program.

Basic Guide Principles

As explained below, the guides include six basic principles. Examples are given as appropriate.

The user must be able to understand the claim with a reasonable baseline of ecologically preferred product knowledge.

Qualification and Disclosure
The manufacturer must qualify and limit claims where the attribute only deals with a portion of the product. Example: This packaging is 25% post-consumer recycled fiber by weight.

Display of Qualifying Language
Disclosures and language must be clear, prominent, and easy to understand.

Avoid Overstated Claims
Do not make claims for benefits that are, in fact, negligible. An overstated claim may be one that asserts that since an aerosol product is free of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), it is ozone-friendly. However, CFCs are already banned in most countries, thus the claim is irrelevant. In addition, many aerosolized products contain contributors to smog/ozone.

Comparative Statements
When such statements are made, the basis of comparison must be clarified (whether it is vs. prior versions or competitors, etc). Example: Our new and improved packaging is 10% less by weight than the prior version and therefore contributes 10% less by weight to landfills.

General Claims
These are claims that include terms such as “environmentally friendly,” “earth-smart,” and “essentially non-toxic.” Such terms are very broad, can be subjective and require significant data to prove; the best advice is to avoid them. Claiming that a brand of adhesive is water-based and therefore earth-friendly does not account for additives, the resin, etc.

Guide Terminology

The FTC guides also point out specific terminology and phrases, along with their appropriate usage:
  • Degradable, Biodegradable and Photodegradable: Qualify the type of degradation, whether it refers to the package or the product, and conditions in which degradation can occur.
  • Compostable: At-home composting and municipal composting are different and need to be addressed as such.
  • Recyclable and Recycled Content: Bear in mind these are two distinct attributes and rework does not count.
  • Source Reduction
  • Refillable: If a container needs to be returned to the factory for refill and no mechanism is in place to facilitate returns, it is not refillable.
  • Ozone Safe and Ozone Friendly
Future versions of the guides are expected to include additional ecological properties such as global warming potential, organic content claims and others that are becoming more common in the marketplace. To read the guides and see the dozens of examples of both good and bad claims, visit the FTC website