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Environmental claims are everywhere. Don’t you feel guilty when you don’t buy something “Green” ? But what is green? The FTC is holding a series of workshops to review and update their Green Guidelines.

Here are the comments I’ve submitted:
Feb. 11, 2008:
The basic principles of the Green Guides are important to maintain and extend to the current plethora of “green” claims appearing in the US market.

• Claims need to be technically accurate and supported by scientific data.

• Claims should not be misleading to the consumer insofar as they imply environmental benefit that is not and/or cannot be substantiated.

Several current marketing claims are violating these basic standards and need enforcement and publicity from the FTC to ensure consumers receive good information on which to base purchases.

“Chemical Free”
1. This is a straightforward task for specified chemical content (e.g., “lead-free”). If the level of the chemical is typically detectable at greater than background or regulated levels, the product is not “free” of that chemical.
2. The generic claim “chemical free” is gaining popularity as the public is encouraged to believe that “chemicals” are bad for you. Such a generic claim is bogus insofar as all things – all matter – are made of chemicals, each with a dose that will cause adverse health or environmental effects. This is true whether the chemical was found and extracted from nature or man-made. This is a misleading claim and technically inaccurate and should be discouraged for use with regard to any product or as part of any marketing (or anti-marketing) activity.

“Sustainable”
1. The definition of sustainable is varied, made up of value-laden general terms and controversial. It is currently not capable of substantiation as a stand-alone claim.
2. It is not technically possible at this time to define sustainable as a general term of art.
3. Even with regard to specific attributes (e.g., a chemical component is derived from a renewable plant resource), it cannot be clearly argued that the attribute is “sustainable” since there is no generally accepted definition for the term.
4. At best, companies can talk about their programs regarding sustainable development in a full text document (e.g., on their website or in their “Corporate Sustainability Report”).
5. FTC should discourage use of “sustainable” as a claim for a product until a clear consensus on metrics defining the term are developed.

“Green” “Eco –“ “Natural” Terms, Logos and Artwork
1. These terms and visual claims are more likely than not equivalent to FTC’s prohibited term “environmentally friendly” as unqualified claims for a product.
2. Such claims should never appear without clear statements of the specific attributes being claimed. While reference to third party standards and websites are useful, they are likely not to be investigated by the consumer at the point of purchase. Insofar as possible, sufficient point of sale information should be made available to the consumer as to what the environmentally preferred attributes are.

“Environmentally Preferable”
1. Such claims need to be carefully referenced as to which attribute(s) make the product preferred. Those claims must be technically supported. Reference to defined programs should be clear to the consumer.
2. There needs to be a significant improvement or reduction in impact relative to a historical or existing product for the attributes, e.g., >10%.
3. Unqualified claims should not be allowed.
…….

April 16, 2008 on Green Packaging:
The basic principles of the Green Guides are important to maintain and extend to the current plethora of “green” claims appearing in the US market.

• Claims need to be technically accurate and supported by scientific data.

• Claims should not be misleading to the consumer insofar as they imply environmental benefit that is not and/or cannot be substantiated.

Several current marketing claims are violating these basic standards and need enforcement and publicity from the FTC to ensure consumers receive good information on which to base purchases. In addition to comments filed on project P954501, the following comments are provided for your consideration on packaging claims:
1. “Sustainable” should not appear as a product or package descriptor on a package. The term is ill-defined and made up of several factors, often specific to a particular product or manufacturer. Similarly, “cradle to cradle” and “life cycle” are not terms amenable to understanding on a package label. At most, packages may make an informational reference to obtaining further information about company programs regarding sustainability via a website, phone number or address.
2. “Biodegradable, photodegradable, degradable” have no place on solid products or packaging. At most it can be accurate in describing liquids that will be sewered. Landfilled sold wastes are minimally degradable; compostable would be the preferred claim (see #3). Implying that it is preferable to litter so that the product or package will degrade is unacceptable.
3. “Compostable” should be reserved for those products that can be composted in a typical home composting process. If a community or business offers composting options, additional information and descriptions of what can be accepted by the composting operation will be provided to consumers. B2B communications can handle identification without relying on product packaging, especially if that package can be sold at retail.
4. “Eco-“ and “Green” names and graphics are equivalent to using the term “environmentally friendly” which the FTC has correctly identified as misleading and impossible to technically support. Given the all-pervasiveness of this kind of terminology however, it may be impossible to eliminate at this stage. A practical alternative may be to require labeling that provides a website, phone number or address to obtain information that explains the environmental attributes that are being used in support of such a claim. FTC should solicit challenges (often from competitors) and initiate its own reviews of the supporting information to see if there is a substantive basis for the use of such names and graphics. There should be material improvements (e.g., >10%) in more than one environmental attribute over previous generations or competitive products. Attributes can include: reduced raw material use, reduced energy use in manufacture or use, recyclability, renewable resource use, reduced toxicity, etc.
5. “Source reduction” is not likely to have meaning to the general consumer as a stand-alone claim. See comment #1 and 4.
6. “Bio-based” is not well-defined. Petroleum is bio-based, albeit made from long deceased biological organisms. In current usage, the term is intended to refer to use of renewable agricultural and forestry products as feedstocks vs petroleum. Deriving feedstocks from coconut tree plantations planted in former tropical forests may or may not be environmentally preferable. Bio-fuels based on corn are now under serious scrutiny for net impacts on the environment. The FTC should not support faddism. It should support sincere efforts by companies to move toward the idea of sustainability and reduced impact on the environment – efforts that seldom can be described in a starburst on a package. Again, see comments #1 and 4.
7. “Recycled content” differences between pre- and post-consumer are probably lost on the general consumer. The base claim is that waste was diverted (temporarily) from disposal to make the product. Insofar as companies can document that fact, it probably doesn’t matter to the consumer. However, as long as there are generally accepted standards by which companies are judged (federal and state) they may need to be continued.
8. “Ozone friendly” “Ozone safe” – given the universal ban on ozone depleting substances there really is no reason to continue use of this claim. However, all products should cease using it by some date, otherwise the implication is that an unlabeled product does harm the ozone layer.
9. Third party certification: certifiers should file copies of their criteria for certification with the FTC for potential review for substantiation and consistent with ISO 14021 standards. Packages using such logos should provide a reference source (website, phone number, address) for further information about the certification program.

Concluding in both comments:

FTC should bring enforcement action against egregious violators and should educate members of the public on the merits of marketing claims and how they can obtain valid information to support their purchasing decisions.

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