Advertising Compliance Service

10 Ways to Spot Suspect Environmental Claims

by John Lichtenberger*


It was not that long ago that a gigantic gusher of oil - the largest accidental oil spill in all of history - dumped 206 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This spill was equivalent to 19 Exxon Valdez's worth of oil. While the government and BP scurried to minimize the psychological impact of this massive amount of oil - and the unprecedented amount of toxic dispersant kept much of that oil below the surface - the devastation wrought on marine life and Gulf livelihoods is still being felt. This is just one example of how an environmental problem can occur quickly and with devastating impact. Individuals are genuinely concerned with the future of our planet and, increasingly, are taking steps to address the many major environmental problems we face today.

Moreover, businesses are getting involved by offering consumers such "green" alternatives, as:

However, there is - unfortunately - a dark side to the environmental revolution: Exaggerated environmental advertising claims are showing up up in the traditional print and broadcast media and on such new media as the Internet.

There is some needed guidance on the way. On October 6, 2010, FTC proposed revisions to the guidance that it gives marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims. The proposed changes are designed to update the Guides and make them easier for companies to understand and use. For more information about this proposal, see "FTC Proposes Revised "Green Guides".

You ought to be able to rely on an advertiser's "green" advertising claims since that is often your first indication of an environmental benefit for a particular product. Of course, you will do your homework later - but you would like to believe that the advertiser's green claim is true and accurate. Nevertheless, not all environmental claims are true. And some claims are inaccurate. This article lists 10 questions that you can ask when you come across an environmental advertisement that you believe might be suspect. The areas covered by this article include substantiation, general versus specific "green" claims, exaggerated or overstated environmental attributes or benefits, and many other environmental advertising topics. While it's only a starting point, we believe that it will give you 10 Ways to Spot Suspect Environmental Claims:

1. Is the Advertiser Able to Substantiate All of the Express or Implied Environmental Claims Appearing in Their Advertisement?

Advertisers who make express or implied claims about the attributes of their product, package or service must be able to substantiate their advertising claims. When it comes to environmental claims, this means that the advertiser may be required to have competent and reliable scientific evidence (e.g., tests, analyses, research, studies) to back up such claims. You might see mention of such tests in the ad itself (if it's in print or on the Internet). You might consider writing the advertiser or calling them to ask if such information is available for you to read. If you've done your homework and you still believe that the advertiser cannot substantiate its green advertising claims, such claims should be considered suspect.

2. Are You Able to Tell If the Green Advertising Claim Refers to the Product, the Packaging or Both?

As you read a green advertising claim, you should be able to figure out whether the advertiser is talking about the product, the packaging or both. If not, chances are the claim is false or deceptive. Under FTC's Environmental Guides, "An environmental marketing claim should specify whether it refers to the product, the packaging or both, or just to a component of the product or its packaging." Here's an example:

Let's say a cereal box is labeled "recycled package." The package consists of a paperboard box with a wax paper bag inside holding the cereal. But what does the advertiser mean by this claim? Does it refer to the box only? Does it refer to only the bag? Or does it refer to both? This type of claim is ambiguous. And the claim is deceptive if only the box is recycled. If the box alone were recycled, a non-deceptive claim would have qualified so as to say, for example, "recycled box."

3. Does the Ad Exaggerate or Overstate Environmental Attributes or Benefits?

Say you come across a banner ad on a calendar publisher's website that says,

"Our Calendars now contain 50% more recycled content than before."

This sounds like a great environmental benefit. Maybe it is the tipping point factor that leads you to buy their calendars over another publisher's calendars. However, the publisher increased the recycled content of its calendars from 2% recycled material to 3% recycled material. So the claim is technically correct. However, the banner advertisement is likely to convey the false impression that the use of recycled material was increased significantly.

If you read the advertisement carefully, the question arises, just how much recycled content was in this product before? If the advertiser does not answer that question with specificity, a red flag is raised that the claim may be an exaggeration.

4. Are there Comparative Environmental Claims in the Ad?

Let's use the same calendar publishing company example as above. However, this time the company puts this statement on the front of its 2008 calendar:

"50% more recycled content"

Once again, it sounds like the calendar offers a significant environmental benefit. But this claim is ambiguous as there's no way to tell if the claim is a comparison to the publisher's 2007 calendar or to a competitor's calendar. To eliminate this ambiguity, the advertiser should have made the basis for the comparison clear, by saying, for example,

"50% more recycled content than our 2007 calendar"

5. Does the Ad Make a General Environmental Claim?

Examine the advertisement closely to see if the advertiser is making a general environmental claim or a specific claim. Specific environmental claims are easier to substantiate than general claims. And they're less likely to be deceptive. An unqualified general claim of environmental benefit may convey that the product has far-reaching environmental benefits, when it doesn't.

Let's take the example of the cloth shopping bag that's labeled "eco-friendly." This claim may or may not be deceptive. It would be deceptive if it leads you to believe that the bag has environmental benefits that the manufacturer cannot back up. It would not be deceptive if the "eco-friendly" label was followed by clear and prominent language limiting the "friendly" representation to the product attribute for which it could be substantiated, and if the context didn't create any other deceptive implications. A qualification for the "eco-friendly" claim--assuming that the advertiser can substantiate this claim--would be:

"This cloth bag is reusable and is made from 100% recycled fibers."

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6. Does the Product Label Contain Eco-Seals, Seals-of-Approval, or Certifications?

Examine the product that you intend to purchase for environmental seals-of-approval, eco-seals and certifications from third-party organizations. These seals and certifications imply that a product is environmentally superior to other products. However, be aware that such broad superiority claims aren't easy for advertisers to substantiate. So you should look for information accompanying the seal-of-approval that explains the basis for the award. If the seal-of-approval implies that a third party has certified the product, make sure that the certifying party is truly independent from the advertiser and has professional expertise in the area being certified.

You should keep in mind that FTC analyzes third-party certification claims to make sure that they're substantiated and not deceptive. Third-party certification does not insulate an advertiser from Commission scrutiny or eliminate an advertiser's obligation to ensure for itself that the claims communicated by the certification are substantiated. Example:

"Great Paper Company sells photocopy paper whose packaging has a seal-of-approval from the No Chlorine Products Association that states `totally chlorine-free paper.' An explanation under the seal-of-approval says the paper production process did not use pulp produced with chlorine or compounds containing chlorine as bleaching agents. Using the highest industry standards, the No Chlorine Products Association certifies that products are chlorine-free only after industry experts have conducted comprehensive mill audits. The claim is unlikely to be deceptive." (See FTC Publication, "Complying with the Environmental Marketing Guides".)

7. Does the Product Make any "Degradable," "Biodegradable", or "Photodegradable" Claims?

Such claims mean that the materials will break down and return to nature within a reasonably short time after customary disposal. What a "reasonably short time" is depends on where the product is disposed.

For example, in landfills, where most garbage is taken, materials degrade very slowly, if at all. Accordingly, it's difficult to substantiate a claim that a product normally disposed of in a landfill is "biodegradable," "degradable" or "photodegradable."

But biodegradable claims for products that go down the drain, like detergents and shampoos, may be substantiated if the product will degrade in wastewater treatment systems. A "reasonably short period of time" for biodegradability of products like detergents and shampoos that go into the wastewater treatment systems would be about the same time that it takes for sewage to be processed in the wastewater treatment systems.

8. Does the Ad Make any "Compostable" Claims?

Such "compostable" claims are appropriate on products or packages that will break down, or become part of usable compost (e.g., mulch), in a safe and timely manner in home compost piles. For composting, a "timely manner" is approximately the same time that it takes organic compounds, like leaves, grass, and food stuff, to compost.

Claims for a product that is "compostable" in a municipal or institutional composting facility - but that won't break down quickly enough to be compostable in home compost piles - may need to be qualified to avoid deception about the limited availability of municipal or institutional composting facilities. Consumers are likely to understand "compostable" claims to mean that the product can be composted at home or in their community. If it isn't, the "compostable" claim should be accompanied by an explanation. For example, a lawn and leaf bag might say,

"Appropriate composting facilities may not be available in your area."

9. Are "Recyclable Claims" Being Made on the Labels or Ads?

These advertising claims mean the products can be collected, separated or recovered from the solid waste stream and used again, or reused in the manufacture or assembly of another package or product through an established recycling program. A claim of recyclability should make clear to consumers whether it refers to the product, the package, or both.

Unless the entire product or package is recyclable, the claim ought to specifically indicate which parts of the product or package are recyclable. If only minor or incidental components are not recyclable, the claim needn't be qualified.

10. Are there "Please Recycle" Claims on the products or the packages?

Consumers interpret the phrase "Please Recycle" on products or packages to mean that the product or package is "recyclable." So the same guidelines for making "recyclable" claims apply to "Please Recycle" claims.

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Additional Information

Complying with Environmental Marketing Guides: FTC Publication

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the power to bring law enforcement actions against false or misleading marketing claims, including environmental or "green" marketing claims. The FTC issued its Environmental Guides, often referred to as the "Green Guides," in 1992, and revised them most recently in 1998. The Guides indicate how the Commission will apply Section 5 of the FTC Act, which bars unfair or deceptive acts or practices, to environmental marketing claims. On October 6, 2010, FTC proposed revisions to the guidance that it gives marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims. The proposed changes are designed to update the Guides and make them easier for companies to understand and use. For more information about this proposal, see "FTC Proposes Revised "Green Guides".

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