What the New Green Marketing Guidelines Really Mean

At long last — after 35 months, three public hearings, hundreds of public comments, two presidential administrations, and 17,536 utterings of the phrase, "It isn't easy being green" — they've arrived: The U.S. Federal Trade Commission's proposed "Green Guides," the federal government's definitive guides to green marketing.

The document, released today (a summary can be downloaded here - PDF), is an update to the original "Green Guides," published in 1992, then updated in 1996 and 1998. A lot has happened since then, marketing-wise: claims related to carbon-neutral and other greenhouse gas emissions; biobased materials, including packaging and textiles from bamboo and other plant matter; renewable energy; and the introduction of hundreds of eco-logos and certifications, some highly authoritative and credible, others decidedly less so.

The FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed changes until December 10, 2010, "after which it will decide which changes to make final."

The updating of these guides for the first time in 12 years has been greatly anticipated, seen as a watershed event, one aimed at curbing what some see as a veritable tsunami of greenwashing. (I'm not one of those. See my thoughts on greenwashing here and here.) Nonetheless, “We’ve seen an explosion of green claims,” as FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz put it in today’s press conference.

In brief: The guides are a common-sense set of rules about what claims a company can and can't make, and what kind of substantiation and disclaimers are required for specific types of marketing messages. The original guides were intended to prohibit or clarify vague claims ("all-natural," "non-toxic," "safe for the environment") and curb the use of claims that, while technically true, were generally misleading — a "recyclable" product or package that hardly anyone could actually recycle, for example.

Some of this has been clarified or more fully defined in the new version. It also adds guidance on three new claims: “made with renewable materials,” “made with renewable energy” and “carbon offsets.”

Like their predecessors, the proposed updated guides represent a low bar, intended to eliminate outright misrepresentation and fabrications. Their updating do not herald a new era of green marketing. Despite some near-hysterical predictions, they aren't likely to "radically reshape how far marketers can go in painting their products, packaging or even corporate images green," as Advertising Age recently speculated.

For green marketers, it is not the end of the world as we know it. They won't likely change the landscape much, and most definitely won't eliminate critics' charges of "greenwashing."

It still isn't easy being -- well, you know.

The new guidelines, while in great need of a freshening up, don't really keep up with the world of sustainable business practices. I had a brief window into this in early 2008, a few months after the FTC first announced that it would update the guidelines. I was invited by the commission to meet in DC. At the time, the commission staff was focusing on packaging, in preparation for a workshop to be held in late April of that year.

In our meeting, FTC staffers described their focus on packaging — how they wanted to update the guidelines to reflect developments since 1998 — things like bio-based packaging, which wasn't addressed in the guidelines, compostable packaging, plant-based plastics, and other newfangled materials.

At one point I asked: "How do you plan to address claims about reduced packaging — or eliminating packaging altogether?" (And where would you put such claims if there's no packaging!)

The FTC folks hadn't considered this — and the proposed guidelines issued today don't mention it.

That brings up another shortcoming of today's guidelines. They don't address some of the more potent claims a company can make about its product or packaging. Cradle to Cradle, a standard that certifies products whose ingredients can be recycled back into nature or industrial processes — it's not mentioned. Biomimicry — products inspired by nature that use less energy and whose designs or materials mimic plants, bugs, sea life, and other critters — you won't find guidance for that. Green chemistry — the next-gen substitutes for some of the world's most toxic chemicals? It's nowhere to be found.

There's no guidance on the word "sustainable" or "sustainably." Or "green."

And so it goes. The FTC guidelines address only a tiny fraction of what companies are doing — the overt, relatively minor improvements companies make to their products and processes.

That's to be expected. The FTC was created to give consumers a voice in the marketplace. Its principal mission is consumer protection. And so the guidelines reflect only what companies choose to share with consumers.

But that's far from everything. There are 1,001 other things — the behind-the-scenes innovations that variously, and sometimes significantly, reduce water, energy, and materials intensity of so many of the everyday products we buy, sometimes far disproportionately to the relatively minor enhancements claimed by green marketers. The FTC offers no map for that.

Some activists and consumer advocates will no doubt be celebrating the new guidelines, while others will be bemoaning its low-common-denominator perspective. That's all fine. Both parties are right. It's not likely to alter the lives of green consumers much.

The "Green Guides" are finally out. Now, let's get on with our lives.

Joel Makower is Executive Editor of GreenBIz.com.