Green Guides seek details on claims

By: Don Loepp

October 11, 2012

The Federal Trade Commission has finally issued its updated Green Guides — its blueprint for companies that want to make environment-related marketing claims.

There are few major changes in this revision, but plastics companies should be aware of one that’s potentially important. It applies to marketing claims that companies make related to lightweighting or downgauging their products, which is a pretty common strategy for manufacturers.

According to a report by Advertising Age’s Jack Neff, advertising-law attorneys say the new guides “could require marketers to do more thorough analyses of broader environmental impact even when making very specific claims, while also discouraging claims about relatively small improvements.” Neff reports that claims like “we use less plastic than before” could face scrutiny from FTC.

Chris Cole, a lawyer with Manatt Phelps & Philips in Washington, told Ad Age that if a “less plastic” claim conveys the message that the product is better for the environment, marketers need to provide documentation. A full-blown life-cycle analysis might not be necessary, he said. But companies should have details on, for example, how much energy was saved in making and transporting the product as a result of the lighter weight? How much carbon dioxide was saved?

Plastics processors in some industries, like packaging, are getting familiar with those types of situations. If you deal with customers that have specific sustainability goals, you already know they want details on what you’re doing to help meet those targets.

Typically, though, I see companies get into trouble when they’re not used to making marketing claims, or when they try to make a comparison with a competitor’s product.

FTC first issued the guides in 1992 and has updated them periodically to keep up with shifting marketing messages and consumer preferences. The last update was just two years ago.

Processors may remember that in 1998, FTC revised how marketers can use the terms recyclable, recycled and compostable, and made specific suggestions about how companies can display the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. resin identification code.

The new guides address some of the most common advertising buzzwords that we see today. They say, for example, that the words “green” and “eco-friendly” are overly broad and should not be used unless they are backed up with specifics. But the guides don’t address the word “sustainable,” which we’ve been seeing more often the past few years. James Kohm, associate director for FTC’s enforcement division, told Neff that while the agency probably won’t rewrite the Green Guides for another 10 years, it may revisit claims like “sustainable” before then.

As I wrote the last time FTC updated the Green Guides, these rules are necessary and have helped to regulate what threatens to be a proliferation of confusing — and often misleading — environment-related marketing claims. The newest revisions make sense, and the plastics industry needs to familiarize itself with both the letter and the spirit of these regulations — or some firms may find themselves paying the consequences.

Loepp is editor of  Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”