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What companies should know about FTC's revised Green Guides

FTC cracks down on "greenwashing" marketing claims by updating its Green Guides. Here's what your natural business should know.

Environmental awareness has grown exponentially over the past decade. With documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., and lets face it, Pixar’s Wall-E gaining massive popularity within mainstream consciousness, natural consumers are more attuned than ever to living sustainably.

Many companies have capitalized on this trend by touting their product’s miniscule environmental footprint. Terms such as “eco-friendly,” “green” and “made with recycled products” are omnipresent on product packages ranging from sneakers to junk food to iPhone cases.

While many of these claims are properly corroborated, especially in the natural foods industry, some experts argue sustainable package marketing could deceive consumers.

Tighter eco-marketing guidelines

In an effort to stem the tide of potential “greenwashing,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently updated it’s Green Guides, established in 1992 and periodically updated every 10 years.

“Among other modifications, the Guides caution marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that a product is ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘eco-friendly,’” reads a statement from the FTC. The agency's consumer perception study confirms that such claims may suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits, even if it doesn't. Because of this, companies should now authenticate their green claims with in-depth data.

For example, if a product says “biodegradable” on the package, a company should have the information to verify that “the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within one year after customary disposal,” according to the FTC.

“That means no products destined for landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities can make such a claim,” clarifies The New York Times.

Currently, the term “biodegradable” is unregulated—everything (even plastics) will degrade eventually. The best way to know a product will break down entirely without chemical residues is if it contains the BPI Compostable certification.

You’re responsible, despite certification labels

FTC’s Green Guides also contain specifications surrounding certification labels—notoriously tough waters to navigate given that there are more than 430 green labels worldwide, ranging from Fair Trade USA to Rainforest Alliance to the recent WindMade label.

The guidelines stress that despite third party verifications, it’s the marketer’s responsibility to ensure it can confirm claims made by the certification.

Per their name, the Green Guides are not bona fide laws or regulations. Rather, they “describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may or may not find deceptive,” says the FTC website. Meaning, if the FTC finds your marketing misleading, you could be hit with a lawsuit, as was the case for the certifying seal Tested Green in 2009 (which certified companies that were neither tested nor green for a few hundred dollars a pop).

Sustainable natural examples

The revised guidelines have made environmental standards more stringent, but there already are natural companies leading the way in environmental transparency that should be lauded and emulated.

They say, after all, that imitation is the best form of flattery.

Harmless Harvest
Makers of organic, raw coconut water. Works with traditional agro-forest farmers to foster sustainability and biodiversity. Contains interviews with plant ecologists, project reports and a copy of Thoreau’s Wild Apples on it’s website.

One Degree Organics
Makers of bread, flour and seeds. Pioneers of the “veganic” model of farming and winner of the Nexty Award. You enter the code from product package’s onto One Degree’s website, and see a video of the farmers who grew the ingredients.

World Centric
Makers of BPI Compostable cutlery, plates, cups and now toothbrushes. Outlines percentages of carbon emissions each step of the production line. Partners with Rainforest Action Network; includes scans of factory audit reports on it’s website.

Justin’s Nut Butter
Makers of blended nut butters and candy. Includes distance each ingredient travels from farm to factory, CO2 emitted per year and cost to offset. Working towards a 100 percent renewably-sourced squeeze pack film that you can compost at home.

And find a few more transparent companies.

Do you think the updated Green Guides will influence marketers? Share in the comments below.

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