The new Green Guides is a must-read for marketers if they are to understand the fine print on green claims.
By Jonathan Yohannan
We should rejoice.
The latest Federal Trade Commission Green Guides, which were released last month, provide updated guidance on everything from the use of certification to specific environmental claims. While the guides are not perfect or comprehensive, they do provide tangible information and ammunition to empower companies and keep offenders in check.
The ambiguity of marketers’ excessive use of green imagery, vague claims, and invented seals has helped reinforce an already pessimistic consumer audience.
In fact, research from Cone's 2012 Green Gap Trend Tracker demonstrates an ongoing need for clarity. More than half of consumers surveyed (54 percent) believe common environmental marketing terms such as "green" or "environmentally friendly" indicate a product has a positive (36 percent) or neutral (18 percent) impact on the environment.
And, only three percent understand the claim to mean the product has less of an impact than a previous version.
What Marketers Need to Know
What are the Green Guides? FTC Green Guides aren’t new. They’ve been around since 1992 with updates and revisions in 1996, 1998 and 2012. They are designed to protect consumers from deceptive marketing and are loosely enforced by federal and state laws around unfair competition and consumer protection. Nongovernmental organizations also use the guidelines as ammunition for class-action lawsuits. The scope of the Green Guides applies to marketing claims in public relations, advertising, labeling and promotional materials.
What’s New and Noteworthy?
- General Environmental Claims Are Out. “Green” and “eco-friendly” should not be used unless connected to a specific benefit such as “plastic reduced by 50% compared to our previous version”. Relying on a company website to substantiate misleading claims is also a no-no under the new rules.
- Scope of Certification Is Limited and Must Be Third-Party Validated. Creating your own “logo” that may be perceived by consumers as a certification is out. And certifications must be narrowly defined to the attribute, such as Fair Trade.
- “Free Of” Can’t Be Used If It Wasn’t In The Product to Begin With. It’s also no longer acceptable to use the term “Free Of” if the replacement ingredient carries the same environmental or health risk. This is particularly important as the onus is on marketers to ensure the replacement doesn’t replace one bad thing with another.
- Non-Toxic Must Be Safe for People, Pets and Cause No Harm to Environment. This must be substantiated across all three to make the claim. Crayola, as an example, needs to substantiate all three.
- Renewable Energy Must Extend From Production to Product Packaging. The nuances in the term “renewable energy” can be difficult for consumers to understand. The new Green Guides ask companies to use clear and descriptive language when using the term “renewable energy” on-pack. If companies are only using renewable energy in a portion of the production cycle, they are now required to explicitly share the percentage of renewables used, as well as the type (e.g. solar, wind). “Made with Renewables” won’t be sufficient.
- Biodegradability and Compostability Must Be Real and Attainable. Compostable must mean it can be composted in home composters and if not, limitations must be disclosed on pack. Biodegradable must degrade in reasonable period (one year or less) and there must be clear messaging on how to dispose of these items as items destined for a garbage bag cannot degrade.
- Recyclable Only if More Than 60 Percent of Communities Have Access. Containers like yogurt cups can’t be labeled recyclable unless 60 percent or more of U.S. communities can recycle the product through local recycling programs nor can other products like printer cartridges that don’t meet the threshold. Tetra Pak is an example of a company affected by the guides.
What’s Still Grey?
Sustainable, natural and organic (regulated by the FDA) are relatively the Wild Wild West. No guidance was provided, but they hopefully will be addressed in the next round.
Opportunities and Guardrails
After reading this, you might be thinking --what can we possibly say?
While “eco-friendly” and “green” are deemed the third-rail, this does open up opportunities and should help level the playing field for brands and companies. The purpose of the Green Guides isn’t to dampen enthusiasm in touting environmental stewardship- it’s to make the claims authentic and meaningful to the lay person.
5 Tips for Marketers
- Focus on Stakeholder Return: Green marketing must have a clear intent to influence. Know your audience at the outset and determine what a “win” would look like.
- Start with the Science: Green claims often require an understanding of the impacts. Clearly explaining the science and making credible comparisons are the first steps to helping consumers understand environmental claims.
- Demystify the Complexity: Assume your audience knows nothing as you develop your messaging.
- Validate with Experts: Engage with key opinion leaders and experts in advance of communication to ensure your messaging is tight, accurate and can be defended upon questioning.
- Prepare to Evolve: Innovation around material impacts continues to evolve. The issues and the science as well as stakeholder perceptions are a moving target. Careful monitoring of issues is in traditional and social media is critical.