The 2012 revisions to the FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims addressed new categories of environmental claims, some of which are described below. For information about these and other new types of environmental claims, such as Carbon Offsets, Ozone-Safe, and Made with Renewable Energy, visit the FTC’s Summary of the Green Guides website (PDF).
- Certifications and Seals of Approval: Only legitimate third-party certifications and seals may be used as environmental endorsements on packaging. The third-party certification marks, seals or logos must clearly convey the basis for the certification or they will constitute a general environmental claim. Use clear and prominent text to identify the related environmental benefits of the package. If your company is affiliated with the certifying organization, that must be disclosed.
- “Free-of” Claims: As with general environmental claims, “free-of” claims must be clearly and prominently qualified to avoid deception. Do not claim that your packaging is free of a substance that is not generally associated with the material. Also, do not make a “free-of” claim if the packaging contains a substance that poses the same or similar environmental risks as the “free-of” substance. If an item contains only a trace amount of a substance, a free-of claim can still be used if the presence of the substance does not cause harm that a consumer would typically associate with the substance and it hasn’t been intentionally added to the item. You must be able to substantiate all claims with competent and reliable scientific evidence (such as material safety data sheets kept on file).
- Non-Toxic Claims: These claims must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence that the packaging is safe for both people and the environment.
- Renewable Materials Claims: These claims should be qualified unless an item is made entirely with renewable materials, except for minor and incidental components. The claim should clearly and prominently state the material used, what the source of the material is, and why it’s renewable. You must be able to substantiate these claims.
FTC Green Guides Enforcement in California
The FTC has authority to bring enforcement actions for deceptive and misleading claims about a product or packaging. To date, the majority of the FTC’s actions have involved unsupported or unsubstantiated biodegradable plastic claims. However, one action in 2014 involving a California company—American Plastic Lumber—was brought over statements about the amount of post-consumer recycled plastic content in the company’s products.
California and several other states have incorporated the FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (also known as the Green Guides) into state law. Under this law (California’s Business and Professions Code, Section 17580.5(a)), some California companies have been sued by the state for greenwashing. In 2011, California’s Attorney General sued three companies for false and misleading claims used in marketing plastic water bottles. Specifically, the manufacturers said the bottles were “100 percent biodegradable and recyclable.” The state reached settlements with the companies, who were ordered to stop using the term biodegradable, provide corrective notice about prior biodegradable claims, and pay penalties.