On October 6, 2010, the Federal Trade Commission proposed revised “Green Guides”, the guidance provided to corporate marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims. The Green Guides were first issued in 1992 and revised in 1996 and 1998. The proposed Guides issued last week are designed to significantly strengthen the FTC’s prior guidance and provide new guidance on marketing claims that were not commonly asserted in the 1990’s before the “Green Revolution”. Although the FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed revisions through December 10, 2010, the guidance issued last week is not likely to be significantly modified.

Based upon a review of the new Green Guides, there are some basic rules of the road that, if followed, will help companies avoid “Greenwashing” claims and the consumer class action suits which are likely to become increasingly common: (1) Avoid unqualified general environmental marketing claims that are difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate; (2) General claims of environmental benefit should be accompanied by qualifiers that are clear, specific and accurate; (3) When using a certification or a seal of approval to promote the green nature of a product, use clear and prominent language to clarify that the certification or seal relates to a particular environmental attribute, which the company can substantiate; (4) If the company is endorsing a product with its own seal of approval, use clear prominent and qualifying language to alert consumers that the company created the certifying program, not an independent third-party; and (5) If only a portion of the product is made with recycled or renewable material, clearly and prominently clarify which portion of the product is made from a recycled or renewable source.

Perhaps surprisingly, FTC’s consumer revealed research found that the public overestimates the significance of “Green” claims, which suggests that “greenwashing” is common and probably profitable. Despite consumers’ increasing cynicism, there must be some deep-seated need to believe that you are a buying an “eco-friendly” product. Going forward, companie seeking to comply with the new guidelines may want to rethink their marketing strategies and avoid making general claims of “environmental friendliness” and focus instead on advertising claims that can be are based on scientific research.

The FTC’s Green Guides are largely devoid of regulatory jargon often found regulations and are easy to read and understand. The Green Guides provide helpful examples of which kind of claims are acceptable and which are not. Following the adoption of the Green Guides, should we expect that FTC will initiate a spate of enforcement actions to emphasize to industry that the new Green Guides should be taken seriously? You bet!.