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FTC’s Green Guides: No Guidance on ‘Sustainability’

Even though they are voluntary, the Federal Trade Commission’s “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims” are highly influential with marketers trying to decide how to promote the eco-friendliness of their products and services.

The so-called “Green Guides” were first issued in 1992 and were revised in 1996 and 1998. They’re undergoing revision again, and public comments on the latest revisions are due to the agency by December 10, 2010.

Some of the “Green Guides” updates are noteworthy and could significantly impact marketing, including more specific definitions of certain terms:

Degradable: The “reasonably short period of time” for complete decomposition of a product or package is defined as one year.

Free of: Use of this term may be considered deceptive if (1) the item has substances that pose the same or similar environmental risk as the substance not present; and (2) the substance has never been associated with the product category.

Made with renewable energy: Marketers should not use this term if any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels and they should specify the source of renewable energy.

Carbon offsets: Marketers should disclose if the emissions reductions from the offsets purchased will not occur for two years or longer.

FTC cautions marketers “not to make blanket, general claims” using terms such as “environmentally friendly,” “eco-friendly” or “green" (apparently with a big exception for the name of its own guides).

On the other hand, the agency took no position on the use of “sustainable” or “sustainability” because it “lacks a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance.” Maybe retaining the flexibility to use such terms is good. On the other hand, this is “the elephant in the room.” Perhaps a term that is apparently so undefinable may also be unsustainable? Isn’t this how “green” lost its credibility?

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