If you're celebrating Earth Day in your marketing, or if you're making plans to promote the environmental benefits of your products, it's important to keep in mind the FTC's "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims."

The Green Guides, which were first issued by the FTC in 1992 and were last revised in 2012, provide guidance to marketers about how to make non-deceptive environmental marketing claims. Although the Green Guides don't have the force of law, they provide great insight into what the FTC believes would be a deceptive claim. (Don't just rely on the Green Guides when thinking about green marketing, however; many states do have laws on this as well, but that's a topic for another post.)

The Green Guides set forth some general principles that marketers should consider whenever making environmental marketing claims:

  • If qualifications are necessary to prevent claims from being misleading, those disclosures should be "clear, prominent, and understandable."
  • It's important to ensure that it is clear whether the claim applies to the product, the packaging, or just a particular element of the product or the packaging. For example, if your product's packaging is labeled "recyclable," does that mean that both the product and the packaging are recyclable?
  • Don't overstate a product's environmental benefit. For example, if you promote a product as having "50% more recycled content than before," but the amount of recycled content in the product is minimal, consumers may be misled into thinking that the product has significantly more recycled content than it actually does.
  • When making comparative claims, it's important to make sure that the comparison is clear. For example, is your "most recycled content" claim a comparison to the other products that you offer, to all competitive products in the marketplace, or to just a specific competitor?

The Green Guides also provide detailed guidance about making general environmental benefit claims. The FTC generally advises against making general environmental benefit claims -- such as that a product is "earth friendly" or "eco-friendly" -- because the FTC believes that they are difficult to interpret and are likely to convey a wide range of meanings. The FTC says that if you're going to make a general environmental benefit claim about a product, you should use clear and prominent qualifying language that limits the claim to a specific benefit. In addition, if a qualified general environmental benefit claim conveys that the product is more environmentally beneficial overall because of the touted benefit, you should ensure that this claim can be substantiated as well.

Finally, the Green Guides provide guidance on the use of a number of specific environmental marketing claims, including:

  • Carbon offsets
  • Certifications and seals of approval
  • Compostable
  • Biodegradable and similar claims
  • Free-of
  • Non-toxic
  • Ozone-safe and ozone-friendly
  • Recyclable
  • Recycled content
  • Refillable
  • Renewable energy
  • Renewable materials
  • Source reduction

For each of these topics, the FTC provides detailed guidance, as well as examples, to explain how to talk about these issues in a non-misleading manner. For example, the FTC advises that not only should certifications and seals of approval comply with the FTC's Endorsement Guides, but marketers should ensure that the certification or seal doesn't convey a general environmental benefit claim. As another example, the FTC advises that, before making a "compostable" claim, marketers should ensure that they have substantiation that the item will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost, in a safe and timely manner, in an appropriate composting facility or home composting system -- and should also ensure that any limitations are clearly disclosed.

These concerns aren't theoretical, by any means. Every year, we see FTC and other actions alleging that marketers have crossed the line. Here are a few examples. Recently, the FTC warned jewelry marketers about their "eco-friendly," "eco-conscious," and "sustainable" claims. P&G settled a lawsuit over its "flushable" wipes claims. And Costco settled settled with twenty-five district attorneys' offices in Calfornia over claims that its coffee pods were "biodegradable."