PROSOCO’s Regulatory Affairs Director, Dwayne Fuhlhage, provides this valuable, personal insight into the Federal Trade Commission’s regulation of “green” marketing.
The FTC’s Green Guides and the Future of Eco Logos
by Dwayne Fuhlhage, CHMM; Regulatory Affairs Director
It’s not often that I have an opportunity to dine with an enforcement official from a regulatory agency. I’m happy to report that this can actually be a pleasant and informative experience.
In mid-December, the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA) hosted a number of prominent speakers at the association’s annual meeting and Sustainability Summit. The head of enforcement for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spent quality time with the Environmental Marketing and Claims Committee (EMCC) in a lively discussion on the FTC Green Guides update and what it means for the formulated products industry.
By pure chance, several outspoken members of the EMCC, myself included, had the opportunity to continue in an informal discussion with him at the closing dinner.
We had a golden opportunity to continue our discussion on the future of the FTC Green Guides and what it means for the formulated products industry.
The FTC Green Guides (common name for Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims) provide a roadmap for what is and is not a legitimate environmental marketing claim. While technically not part of a regulatory program with enforcement, the Green Guides serve as the de facto basis of legal enforcement under other statutory programs.
After a two-year stakeholder dialogue, the FTC published a draft Green Guides revision for public comment. Expect final version publication around June, 2011.
The FTC/EMCC dialogue was constructive.
What became evident to EMCC members is that the FTC did not really understand how our established environmental logo programs work. Third-party eco logo programs and environmental marketing claims for cleaners and coatings generally have a basis in recognized governmental and quasi-governmental (ASTM, ANSI, ISO) standards.
For example, PROSOCO utilizes Scientific Certification Systems to verify indoor environmental quality performance based on testing using a California state standard practice and displays the Indoor Advantage Gold logo in the context of certified products.
The FTC is very concerned about environmental logos and claims that may have no substantiation, or by virtue of irrelevance may be misleading to the average “reasonable consumer.” They recently brought suit against paper plate marketers for misleading biodegradability claims.
While the plates conformed to ASTM biodegradability standards, the FTC asserted that they did not in fact biodegrade in typical landfill conditions. From the FTC’s perspective, conformance with quasi-governmental standards is not a safe harbor and marketing communications must be context sensitive and presented in a manner understandable to a reasonable consumer.
The cleaning products industry uses a variety of ASTM and ISO standards defining the biodegradability of individual ingredients and whole formulations. Through our dialogue, I think the FTC has a better understanding of how standards can play into legitimate marketing claims. Also, I believe they now get the concept that our industry talks to various markets with varying degrees of sophistication and knowledge on eco logos.
An architect or institutional specifier has a different understanding of certain claims than would a general retail consumer.
The FTC made has made clear their expectation that eco logos be qualified and relevant. This should not prove to be a major challenge for third-party and second-party (e.g. trade group) logos. However, logos generated by individual companies will most likely be subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny.
From my perspective, that’s a good thing. Generic logos claiming “green,” “sustainable,” “zero-VOC,” “low-VOC” and “zero VOC” sometimes have a basis in fact; sometimes they are based on unclear, subjective criteria.
Use of self-generated logos dilutes the efficacy of substantive and costly third-party logos.
Self-generated logos can be used in a meaningful way in the future. I welcome an era where the substantiation is included as a statement with the logo.
If you have any doubt that the FTC is serious about logos, watch your favorite environmental e-mail subscriptions for news on probable enforcement action on green logo “mills” – organizations that hand out logos simply by receipt of payment. If the past is any indication of the future, their first enforcement action will be a prelude to a general initiative.
The fallout from the Green Guides revision will take some time to work through the system. It’s clear to me that legitimate third-party logo programs will float to the top in environmental marketing messaging. To date, that’s been the purview of first wave, entrepreneurial for profit and non-profit organizations.
Like everything else in green and sustainable product messaging trends, that market is still sorting itself out. As an example, UL Environment was the 800-pound gorilla in the room at the Sustainability Summit.
They’re already a major presence simply based on the strength of the UL brand even though many of their standards are still in development.
Environmental marketing will evolve rapidly over the next few years. I’m looking forward to seeing who climbs to the top of the heap.
# # #