Are the FTC Guidelines Killing Green Marketing?

Are the FTC Guidelines Killing Green Marketing?

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission released its long-pending revisions to its green marketing guidelines. Commonly known as the Green Guides, these guidelines regulate how marketers may promote the environmental benefits of their products and services.

The revised Green Guides offer new guidance on several topics, including renewable energy, renewable materials and carbon credits. However, the most game-changing aspect of the revised Green Guides is that they now expressly prohibit marketers from making “general environmental benefit claims.” These include statements such as “green,” “eco-friendly” and “environmentally sound,” which all imply that a product or service is good for the environment without making clear exactly why or how.

Based on research indicating that consumers are easily misled by such language, the FTC states that unqualified general green claims are no longer acceptable, whether marketing to consumers or B2B.

Furthermore, a statement doesn’t have to be clearly articulated to count as a general green claim. The guidelines apply to “all…forms of marketing in any medium, whether asserted directly or by implication, through words, symbols, logos, depictions, product brand names, or any other means.”

This is huge.

Why? Because so many of us have incorporated environmental benefit claims into our branding.

Just think about some of the major companies who have done so. Clorox, with their “Green Works” line of cleaning products. Kimberly-Clark's Scott Naturals. Seventh Generation.

These companies, and countless others both large and small, have built environmental messaging right into their identities, or into the identities of certain of their products.

What will happen to brands like these under the new FTC guidelines?  What are they supposed to do? Is it safer to stop talking about green benefits altogether? Is this the end of green marketing?

In addressing these questions, it’s important to remember that the Green Guides are not arbitrary. The FTC didn’t just decide to crack down on green messaging for the fun of it. The agency developed the Green Guides in response to growing demand from both mainstream consumers and the business sector for a more transparent approach to green messaging. The latest revisions reflect the concerns of hundreds of industry and consumer commentators, as well as the results of a consumer study involving thousands of participants.
In essence, the Guides represent tremendous feedback from a vast pool of consumers, along with precise instructions for how to communicate with them more effectively. 
The general public is getting tired and suspicious of meaningless green claims. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in sustainability. Some aren’t; many are. And many of those who do want sustainable products are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of what that means. Offering accurate, substantiated data can help build a trusting relationship with these consumers, who might otherwise remain wary and cynical.

The new mandate against general green claims will also help reduce confusion for consumers who are less educated about sustainable issues. Studies – including one commissioned by the FTC - show that consumers are confused by vague terms like “green” and “environmentally friendly.” Most seasoned sales people will tell you that confused customers are likely to either lose interest, or make an inappropriate purchase they later regret. Ditching general “greenspeak” in favor of specific benefits can actually make environmental messaging more effective.

What to do if you’re branded “green”

While the new guidelines may seem daunting, and are certainly changing the face of green marketing, it’s no reason to give up on environmental messaging altogether. It just has to be more focused and, well…down to earth, with real statistics that actually mean something.

One thing the Green Guides stress over and over is the importance of qualification and substantiation. If, for example, the concept of “green” is so embedded in your brand that you can’t avoid it, the next best thing is to qualify to the hilt. Explain exactly what makes your product or service “green,” and why and how. Companies should have solid scientific proof to back up any environmental claim they make.

Marketers should also be aware of environmental trade-offs: how one environmental benefit doesn’t necessarily mean a product is the best environmental choice. (For example, a locally produced conventionally grown tomato might be lighter on the environment than an organically grown one shipped from across the country). Claiming a product is “green” because of one benefit while ignoring greater environmental damage due to another aspect of the product is considered deceptive. Therefore, if you do choose to qualify general benefit claims, it’s imperative that you do so with a solid understanding of sustainability, backed by verifiable data.

For some of us, the ban on general claims will mean huge revisions. Companies may have to examine their marketing claims one by one, and replace vague “green” claims with real, verifiable facts. In the long run, however, ditching those general claims can only benefit consumers and those companies truly interested in offering sustainable solutions.

Perhaps so. At least, it will put the brakes on the superficial use of environmental benefit claims to try to push more product. The new guidelines – along with general consumer preference – will discourage every Tom, Dick and Harry from turning their packaging green and claiming to have environmentally friendly products and/or packaging based on flimsy or nonexistent evidence. I can guarantee you, you won’t be hearing the word “green” nearly so often as before. And I don’t think anyone will mind.

But in a deeper sense, green marketing is here to stay. In fact, it’s slowly becoming the norm.

Sustainability is becoming an integral part of business and modern life. As it becomes more and more mainstream, it will become paradoxically less noticeable and more pervasive.

You may or may not remember a few decades back, when women were first breaking into higher-level positions in the workplace. Any woman who attained a position of authority or prominence was frequently referred to not simply by her title, but by her title prefaced by “woman.” A “woman lawyer” or a “woman executive.”

You don’t hear that any more, do you? But you do see lots of female lawyers and executives.

The same thing is happening to “green.” And the new Green Guides are helping to facilitate the process.

It’s about time.

Image by Cienpies Design via Shutterstock.