Alden Pellett/AP/File
In this April 2010 file photo, University of Vermont college freshman Nicole Walker, 19, models a graduation cap and gown made of recycled materials. The Federal Trade Commission on Monday released updated guidelines that may lower the number of 'green' products.

But is it really 'green'? FTC cracks down on false eco-friendly ads

New guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission warn marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that their products are environmentally friendly or eco-friendly.

Expect to see fewer products pitched as "environmentally friendly" if the government has its way.

Hoping to limit the number of deceptive claims, the Federal Trade Commission on Monday released an updated version of its green marketing guidelines that hold companies to truthful standards in marketing their products.

The revision to the Green Guides is the first since 1998, when phrases like "carbon offset" and "renewable energy" were not widely used.

The revisions include some changes to the proposed guidelines that the FTC circulated in October 2010 and reflect input from consumers and industry groups. New sections address the use of carbon offsets, "green" certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims.

Among the updates, the guides warn marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that their products are environmentally friendly or eco-friendly.

The FTC said "very few products, if any" deliver the far-reaching environmental benefits that consumers associate with such claims, which it says are nearly impossible to substantiate anyway.

The guides also:

— Advise marketers not to make an unqualified degradable claim for a solid waste product unless they can prove that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within a year after customary disposal.

— Caution that items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year, so marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for these items.

— Clarify guidance on compostable, ozone, recyclable, recycled content, and source reduction claims.

The revised guidelines also outline how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.

They do not address use of the terms "sustainable," ''natural" and "organic." The FTC said that's because it may lack a basis to provide meaningful guidance, or it wants to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts that of other agencies.

The Green Guides are not rules or regulations but general principles that describe the types of environmental claims the agency may find deceptive. The FTC has imposed fines and taken other actions in recent years involving deceptive recyclability, biodegradable and environmental certification claims.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said the changes will level the field for honest business people.

"The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and for producers who want to sell them," he said. "But this win-win can only occur if marketers' claims are truthful and substantiated."

Consumer advocates hope the revisions will help reduce "greenwashing," in which a company promotes a single green aspect of the product but doesn't give the full picture of other ingredients.

Green Seal Inc., a nonprofit environmental certification organization based in Washington, applauded the changes.

"With this new guidance, we hope that there will be enforcement to help rid the marketplace of the many less-than-credible seals and greenwashing that exists," said Arthur Weissman, the group's president and CEO.

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