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FTC’s Revised Green Guides Target Carbon Offset Claims

Marketers should not make broad, unqualified general environmental benefit claims about a product being green or eco-friendly, and should have reliable scientific evidence to support carbon offset claims, cautions the Federal Trade Commission’s Revised Green Guides.

The revisions to the FTC’s Green Guides, two years in the making, reflect a range of public input, including hundreds of consumer and industry comments on previously proposed revisions.

They include updates to the existing guides, first published in 1992, as well as new sections on the use of carbon offsets, “green” certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims.

According to the revised guides, marketers should qualify general claims with specific environmental benefits and should not highlight small or unimportant benefits. Additionally, if a product has an overall environmental benefit because of a specific attribute, marketers should analyze the trade-offs resulting from the attribute to prove the claim, the new guides say.

When displaying “green” seals and certifications on products, marketers should disclose any material connections to the certifying organization, per the revisions.

The guides’ new sections on carbon offsets say markets should use appropriate accounting methods to ensure they measure emission reductions properly and should disclose whether the offset purchase pays for emission reductions that won’t occur for at least two years.

Marketers shouldn’t make unqualified renewable energy claims based on energy derived from fossil fuels unless they purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) to match the energy use, according to the guides. They also also suggest marketers specify the source of renewable energy, such as “solar energy,” and say marketers should not say “made with renewable energy” unless all — or virtually all — the significant manufacturing processes involved in making the product or package are powered with renewable energy or non-renewable energy, matched by RECs.

Companies that generate renewable energy but sell RECs for all the renewable energy they generate shouldn’t claim they “use” renewable energy.

If recycling facilities for a product are not available to at least 60 percent of consumers or communities, a company can state, “This product may not be recyclable in your area.” But if recycling facilities for a product are available to only a few consumers, a marketer should use stronger languages. The guides suggest: “This product is recyclable only in the few communities that have appropriate recycling programs.”

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 one year after customary disposal. The FTC say 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.

Last year, the California attorney general’s office sued bottle manufacturer ENSO Plastics and drinks companies Aquamantra and Balance Water over claims that they misled customers by falsely marketing water bottles as biodegradable.

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