The Canadian organization that sets best practices standards for many industries has issued a new guide that covers environmental claims in marketing and advertising. The guide goes beyond best practices to advise companies concerning compliance with Canadian law. Among its edicts is a prohibition against making certain sustainability claims.

Public-Private Effort

Environmental claims: A guide for industry and advertisers,” issued by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in June, is known as the “CAN/CSA-ISO 14021 Guide.” [Link: ] The newly released guide supersedes the previous version, which was published in 2000.

The guide is more than simply an industry-wide self-regulatory effort, with the CSA working with the Competition Bureau of the Canadian government. The CSA said its aim was to go beyond its usual role of providing best practices standards to help advertisers and marketers comply the relevant Canadian laws: the Competition Act, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and Textile Labelling Act.

“[T]he Competition Bureau will use this Guide as a reference for evaluating environmental claims,” the CSA said. While deviations from the standard may not, in and of themselves, be considered legal violations, compliance with the guide is likely to place advertisers in good stead, the organization stated.

“If the principles and specific requirements of CAN/CSA-ISO 14021 as recommended in this guide are complied with, it is unlikely that environmental claims used in the promotion of a product/service or business interest would raise concerns under the statutes administered by the Competition Bureau,” the CSA stated.

Requirements

The guide was devised for “[m]anufacturers, importers, distributors, retailers, or anyone else likely to benefit from self-declared environmental claims,” the CSA noted. The goals of the guide include leveling the playing field among those that make such claims, and reducing the risk of making misleading environmental claims.

CAN/CSA-ISO 14021 enumerates 18 requirements that apply to all green claims. They include general fair advertising mandates such as that claims be accurate and not misleading, substantiated and verified, relevant and only used in “an appropriate context or setting.”

The guide also addresses issues specific to environmental claims, including the generality with which such claims sometimes are made, and the difficulty consumers often have in determining whether such claims make a difference to overall environmental impacts.

The guide states that environmental claims:

  • “shall be specific as to the environmental aspect or environmental improvement which is claimed”
  • “shall be true not only in relation to the final product but also shall take into consideration all relevant aspects of the product life cycle … to identify the potential for one impact to be increased in the process of decreasing another”

The guide prohibits vague and nonspecific claims: “An environmental claim that is vague or non-specific or which broadly implies that a product is environmentally beneficial or environmentally benign shall not be used.”

The standards also address claims that products are “free” of certain substances, allowing such claims only when the level of the substance in question is “no more than that which would be found as an acknowledged trace contaminant or background level.”

Sustainability

One controversial area the CSA addressed is that of sustainability, and the association took a skeptical stance toward such claims.

“The concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex and still under study,” notes the guide. “At this time there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability shall be made.”

The organization did concede that some limited claims may be made that an advertiser is working toward—rather than has achieved—sustainability. “Claims that refer to specific, registered management systems are sometimes acceptable provided that they can be verified,” the CSA said.

The guide offers examples of claims that are “preferred” and “discouraged.” For example, in the area of sustainability, the following type of claim is “discouraged”:

“This wood is sustainable.”

The guide lists the following as “preferred”:

“This wood comes from a forest that was certified to a sustainable forest management standard….”

Generally, the CSA noted, “[t]he value of environmental claims rests on the assurance that the information provided is credible, objective, and easily identifiable and understood by consumers. Standards play an important role in providing guidance to ensure responsible claims in industry and advertising.”

CAN/CSA-ISO 14021 was released even as in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission is undergoing a comprehensive review of its guidelines regarding green marketing. The agency planned to hold the third in a series of workshops on the topic July 15, to examine claims concerning green building products and clothing. The first workshop, held in January, addressed carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates; in April, the FTC convened a workshop to review green packaging claims.

Why This Matters: Advertisers in North America that benefit from environmental marketing claims should stay abreast of U.S. and Canadian regulatory developments, and review their campaigns to ensure they are compliant with developing standards.