The Federal Trade Commission, applying the Green Guides to the advertising of three different mattress manufacturers, stated that the companies slept on the requirements for making environmentally friendly claims.

All three defendants – Relief-Mart, Inc., Essentia Natural Memory Foam Company, Inc., and Ecobaby Organics, Inc. – marketed their products as free of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Each company made troublesome claims, the agency said. California-based Relief-Mart touted its Biogreen memory foam mattresses as odor-free, while Canadian company Essentia advertised its mattresses as chemical-free, formaldehyde-free, and “made with 100% natural materials.” Ecobaby, also a California company, stated that its products were entirely free of chemicals (including formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene) and that it had tests to back up the claims. The company also included a seal on its promotional materials from the National Association of Organic Mattress Industry, suggesting to consumers that its products were certified as organic.

According to the FTC complaints, all of these claims were false and misleading in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Neither substantiation nor studies existed to back up the claims. As for Ecobaby’s certification, the agency said that NAOMI is really an alter ego of Ecobaby, not an independent certifying organization that grants the seal based on objective standards. In effect, the company awarded the certificate to itself.

The FTC noted that while it typically does not address “odor free” claims, the agency concluded that consumers in this context would assume that the mattress lacks the common smell associated with memory foam and is therefore free of VOCs. As for “free of” claims, the FTC pointed advertisers to the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, better known as the Green Guides, that were updated by the agency last October. Marketers can only claim that a product is “free of” a chemical or other ingredient of environmental concern if the product does not contain the ingredient or has only a trace amount. To meet the agency’s “trace amount” test, a company must demonstrate that (1) the level of the ingredient is less than that which would be found as an acknowledged trace contaminant or background level, (2) the ingredient’s presence does not cause material harm that consumers typically associate with it, and (3) the ingredient has not been added intentionally.

Pursuant to the proposed consent decrees, all three defendants agreed to refrain from making VOC-free claims unless the VOC level is zero micrograms per cubic meter. Each proposed consent order further addressed the other challenged claims, with Ecobaby agreeing to stop making misrepresentations about certifications as well as “free of” chemical claims. Essentia is prohibited from making unsubstantiated “natural” claims or misrepresentations about studies or test results, and Relief-Mart is prohibited from making odor-free claims unless the company can back them up with competent and reliable scientific evidence.

The proposed settlements are now open for public comment.

To read the complaints and the proposed consent orders in the cases, click here.

Why it matters: In the wake of the updated Green Guides, the FTC has not shied away from challenging companies that make environmental claims. In addition to the actions against the mattress manufacturers, the agency brought similar suits against paint manufacturers over VOC-free claims. Both sets of cases should serve as a reminder to environmentally friendly advertisers to check their advertising claims against the Green Guides to ensure compliance.