Updated Federal Trade Commission Guidelines May Nullify 100s of Existing Green Labels, Product Claims

green label image

The US FTC is close to updating its original 'green guides' which have been the sole legal basis for examining and challenging the validity of various green marketing claims or product 'green marks'. There is an obvious need for this update, as more green product claims and labels have popped up every year since TreeHugger was founded--many of which are of questionable value and some of which lead to public controversies about whom to trust. With the latest trend being self-declared and manufacturer-created green labels, better guidance is clearly needed.Some Background: The pioneering green labels were often directly or indirectly government sponsored (I call the upshot eco-nationalism), lack technical and administrative transparency, and are far too expensive for small businesses and designers. This favors big business of course.

Many of the early efforts at green labeling utilized life cycle inventory data that were inapplicable to actual countries of product origin (European-based Boustead data are commonly adjusted for use with US or Asian products for example) and green claim registries commonly include product models that have not been sold in many years.

Products currently marketed as green typically still do not reflect carbon footprint in any way shape or form, making the early and contemporary registries almost useless to compare to those which will be issued in the future.

If and when the EPA's proposed rule on reporting carbon emissions from stationary sources becomes final, the true carbon intensity of certain manufacturing practices can be known with precision. At that point, LCA studies done from generic data set interpolations will be out of date, but only those firms which would benefit from the newly available precise metrics will be making it known to their markets!

All these issues can change for the better if the FTC holds steady against industry lobbyists.

The green shoe that's about to drop: Soon-to-be-finished revisions to the FTC Green Guides, as reported in Advertising Age will do much more than just hold the bamboo carpet baggers accountable. The new FTC guides can level the playing field for small and large companies alike, as well as making accountability and transparency possible.

If done right, the revised guidance will dampen industry-wide marketing battles such as the one now unfolding as Apple vs Other Makers , fought over whose products are greenest and what metrics are best to determine that.

Greenpeace electrical engineers and inorganic chemists can retire from the electronics product indexing business and go back to whale protection. And, hopefully, we can get back to neutral third party measurement of product performance against published and current industry consensus or government standards.

Here's a key cite from the Advertising Age article on this:

Right now on the desks of Federal Trade Commissioners is the new set of so-called Green Guides that are used by the FTC to guide enforcement of existing laws. They are the first environmental-marketing guidelines in 12 years and could radically reshape how far marketers can go in painting their products, packaging or even corporate images green.

Christopher Cole, an advertising-law specialist and partner with law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips in Washington, said the guides could render most of the more than 300 environmental seals of approval now in currency on packaging and products largely useless and possibly in violation of FTC standards. They could also influence efforts, seemingly stalled, by retailers such as Walmart to institute a sustainability-rating system for products.

In my crystal ball: Carbon-intensive manufacturers will attack FTC's effort regardless of how well the guidance is written or how fair it is. Just like with climate legislation it's all about delaying and deferring from the back field, using political proxies.

As the Ad Age article says, much is at stake for the designer and the small business person. If lawyers get involved in defending claims, only big companies can benefit. I have a hunch we will be writing about this subject a lot on TreeHugger.

If "squishy words" like sustainability get pulled in, the entire accountability aspect could be lost. All environmental performance standards are by definition relativistic, and 'my product/company is more sustainable than yours ' is a boring tar pit that sucks in all who reach for it.

Try to make it green, compared to what?: Right now, none of the existing label or claim making procedures are comparable. That makes it far too easy for one industry group versus the other to make misleading claims as a basis for grabbing market share. This is an opportunity for government to normalize at least the most fundamental aspects of what does and what does not constitute a legitimate basis for claiming superiority and for how long such a claim can hold. Take transparency for example: Only by providing a direct link to what was measured, how it was measured, and who measured it can transparency be achieved.

Good chance the Tea Party-Libertarian Think Tank Alliance will jump on this as another example of "Big Government" messing with our lives. I can't see that getting much political traction outside of K-Street, however.

Previous posts on FTC Actions:
US Federal Trade Commission Proposes CFL Labels For Light Output ...
Bamboozled? Bamboo Fabric Far From Eco-Friendly, Says FTC
US Consumer Watchdog Says Shoo to Bamboo Textiles
Shining a Light on the RECs vs. Carbon Offsets Controversy ...
Light Bulbs To Get Nutrition-Style Labels Next Year
Being Pushed Towards a Paperless Existence? Not As Green As We ...

Clorox Green Works Reaches 40 Million Dollar Market Share In First ...
Behind The Scenes, A Green Apple 'Walking The Walk'

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