‘Go Green, Go Paperless?’ FTC Issues Green Guides—and Lack of Substantiation Gets Targeted

Marketers who have been counting the days, months, even years, for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to finalize its latest version of the “Green Guides” (formally, Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims) for making environmental marketing claims must wait no more. (The Guides were established in 1992, and they most recently were updated in 1998.)
The revised guides are 36 pages slim: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/10/greenguides.pdf

Perhaps it was the 5,000 public comments—340 of them unique—that the FTC received. Perhaps it was the upcoming Election and the pressure building to put the claims guidance in the public domain, particularly since the public comment period closed nearly two years ago. Needless to say, the Guides are useful in that they provide both timely counsel and marketplace examples on many terms and claims, such as “recycled content,” “recyclable” and “degradable.”

The newest version of the Guides breaks new ground in six areas: 1) certifications and seals of approval, 2) carbon offsets, 3) “free-of” claims, 4) “non-toxic” claims, 5) “made with renewable energy” claims, and 6) “made with renewable materials” claims. The Guides also clarify previous guidance on terms such as “compostable,” “ozone,” “recyclable,” “recycled content,” and source reduction claims, as well as general environmental friendliness claims.

Two noteworthy items are:

  • Any unqualified claims of degradation must have it that the labeled product or packaging would degrade were it to be placed in a landfill in one year’s time—no more.
  • Any unqualified claims of environmentally friendliness or eco-friendliness are not encouraged—since very few products can meet consumer expectations in all aspects of their environmental impact. However, a qualified comment that focuses consumers on the specific advertised benefit is welcomed.

One can hope that the latter might serve to halt banks, utilities and others that make “go green, go paperless” claims that adorn so many monthly mailed statements, without any type of substantiation offered behind such questionable messaging. It would have been nice to see a clear example in the Guides regarding this specific area, given this claim’s wide use, and given the energy consumed by data centers, the growing problem of electronic waste, the rise of sustainable forestry and the predominance of responsible forest management practices in North America and Europe. Still, the FTC was clear in its direction regarding such general claims:

“Unqualified general environmental benefit claims are difficult to interpret and likely convey a wide range of meanings. In many cases, such claims likely convey that the product, package, or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the item or service has no negative environmental impact. Because it is highly unlikely that marketers can substantiate all reasonable interpretations of these claims, marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims.”

In the same light, I’m not making the claim that paper is preferable to digital. Let’s be honest: most marketers are multichannel today. Most direct mail is data-driven, and is also dependent on data centers. And a life cycle analysis of a direct mail piece and a comparable digital message has not yet been achieved, head to head, as far as I know. Not that that matters. What does matter is that marketers who make any environmental claims need to have substantiation of such claims available to consumers to inspect.

Marketing Sustainably: A blog posting questions, opportunities, concerns and observations on sustainability in marketing.

Chet Dalzell has 25 years of public relations management and expertise in service to leading brands in consumer, donor, patient and business-to-business markets, and in the field of integrated direct marketing. He serves on the Direct Marketing Association International ECHO Awards Board of Governors, as an adviser to the Direct Marketing Club of New York and Marketing Idea eXchange, and is senior director, communications and industry relations, with the Digital Advertising Alliance. Chet loves UConn Basketball (men's and women's) and Nebraska Football (that's just men, at this point), too!


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  • Irwin Corey

    When banks and utilities suggest to "go green" they’re suggesting you save them the postage and printing cost which I’ll guess is about a dollar per transaction. I have yet to see the suggestion to "go green" come along with an offer to reduce my bill this amount. They keep it as profit, which for them is the real "green". Has nothing to do with the environment.

  • AnneMichelsen

    Very good point about data centers. Many people believe that by switching to digital, they’re reducing their environmental impact. But as you point out, it’s a lot more complex than just "saving trees."

    I’d also like to add another point of relevance to direct marketers in regards to the FTC Green Guides: recyclability claims. If you make an unqualified claim that something is "recyclable," recycling facilities for that material must be available to a "substantial majority" (60+%) of targeted consumers in order for the statement to meet Green Guide compliance. Since most mailings consist of regular paper, that is easily achieved. But if you include other materials in your mailings (plastic cards, etc.), you’ll want to double check to make sure recycling facilities for that material are widely available. If not, you’ll need to qualify your message accordingly.

    Sustainability is a highly complex issue, and one that’s gaining in importance in the corporate world. These days it’s to any marketer’s advantage to have at least a basic understanding of sustainability theory. Certainly it’s important to be aware of FTC expectations. I’ve written a white paper (The FTC Green Guides Made Simple: A Companion Guide for Green Marketing Compliance) to help marketers better understand how to comply with the Guides, and why it’s important to do so. It’s available at http://bit.ly/V61h9m should you wish to know more.