Will the FTC’s Revised ‘Green Guides’ Keep Marketers Honest?

We recently discussed consumers’ growing cynicism about products marketed as “green” or “environmentally friendly” — turns out that people are sick of having their well-meaning efforts to better their environment exploited by advertisers and corporations simply looking to cushion their bottom lines. In the wake of many dubious claims, consumers are now understandably hesitant to believe earth-friendly marketing messages.

Today, in its continuing effort to keep the marketers of “green” products honest (or at least discourage them from telling bold-faced lies), The Federal Trade Commission released its revised “Green Guides“, a set of guidelines meant to help advertisers make claims that are “truthful and non-deceptive”.

While the guides aren’t technically regulations, they describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may or may not find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The Act allows the FTC to take “enforcement action” against deceptive claims, which can lead to Commission orders prohibiting deceptive advertising. If a company then violates these orders, it would be subject to fines.

The new revisions take into account more than 5,000 comments received by the FTC since it released the proposed revised Guides in 2010. The guides also include information gathered from three public workshops and a study of the ways in which consumers perceive and understand environmental claims. Updates have been made to previously-existing sections of the guides, and FTC officials added several new sections to cover topics like: certifications and seals of approval; carbon offsets; “free-of” claims; “non-toxic” claims; “made with renewable energy” claims; and “made with renewable materials” claims.

Some of the updated recommendations caution marketers to avoid doing things like making “broad, unqualified claims that a products is ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘eco-friendly’ because the FTC’s consumer perception study confirms that such claims are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits.”

Ya think? If you say something is “eco-friendly”, we expect it to be, you know, “eco-friendly”. But in reality, the FTC acknowledges that “very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate”. No wonder customers feel like they’re getting duped – they are!

“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and for producers who want to sell them,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated. The FTC’s changes to the Green Guides will level the playing field for honest business people and it is one reason why we had such broad support.”

Unfortunately, marketers will almost certainly retain a good bit of wiggle room; the new guides do not address the use of such popular terms as “organic”, “sustainable”, and “natural.”

So what do you think, readers? Will these revised Green Guides make a difference, or does the little picture of the Lorax on our dish soap just prove that we’re suckers?