Environmental marketing claims often present something of a Catch-22—companies that are doing actual good for the environment deserve to reap the benefits of their efforts, and consumers deserve to know, while at the same time, heightened scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Advertising Division (NAD), state regulators and the plaintiffs’ bar have made such claims increasingly risky.

In 2012, the FTC issued the Green Guides for the use of environmental marketing claims to protect consumers and to help advertisers avoid deceptive environmental marketing. Compliance with the Green Guides may provide a safe harbor from FTC enforcement, and from liability under state laws, such as California’s Environmental Marketing Claims Act, that incorporate the Green Guides. The FTC has started a process to revise the Green Guides, including a request for comments about the meaning of “sustainable.” In the meantime, any business considering touting the environmental attributes of its products should consider the following essential takeaways from the Green Guides in their current form:

  • Substantiation: Substantiation is key! Advertisers should have a reasonable basis for their environmental claims. Substantiation is the support for a claim, which helps ensure that the claim is truthful and not misleading or deceptive. Among other things, substantiation requires documentation sufficient to verify environmental claims.
  • General benefit claims: Advertisers should avoid making unqualified claims of general benefit because substantiation is required for each reasonable interpretation of the claim. The more narrowly tailored the claim, the easier it is to substantiate.
  • Comparative claims: Advertisers should be careful and specific when making comparative claims. For example, a claim that states “20% more recycled content” begs the question: “compared to what?” A prior version of the same product? A competing product? Without further detail, the advertiser would be responsible for the reasonable interpretation that the product has 20% more recycled content than other brands, as well as the interpretation that the product has 20% more recycled content than the advertiser’s older products.
  • General greenwashing terms: Advertisers should be very cautious when using general environmental benefit terms such as “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” “green,” and “planet-friendly.” Those kinds of claims feature prominently in many complaints alleging greenwashing, and they should only be used where the advertiser knows and explains what the term means, and can substantiate every reasonable interpretation of the claim.

Putting it into Practice: Given the scrutiny that environmental claims tend to attract, advertisers should exercise care when making environmental benefit claims about their products and services. They should narrowly tailor their claims to the specific environmental attributes they want to promote, and perhaps most important, they should ensure they have adequate backup to substantiate their claims. While the FTC Green Guides are due for a refresh (which we will surely report on), for the time being, they will continue to serve as important guidance for advertisers seeking to inform consumers without exposing their business to FTC scrutiny or class action litigation.