Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides” Aim To Protect Consumers Against Misleading and Deceptive Environmental Marketing Claims

The US Federal Trade Commission is expected to extend the reach of its “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims” when it updates the regulation codified at 16 CFR Part 260. Although FTC’s “Green Guides,” as they are commonly called, are provided only as guidance, organizations that make environmental marketing claims ignore them at their peril. The Federal Trade Commission Act grants the Commission the authority to file complaints against firms that engage in misleading or deceptive business practices. Under the law, the FTC can seek injunctions, issue cease-and-desist orders, and impose civil penalties. In practice, the majority of cases is settled without the imposition of sanctions.

The Green Guides help businesses make environmental claims that are truthful and verifiable. In the parlance of the FTC, companies making environmental claims should have a “reasonable basis” for doing so. FTC oversight extends to claims that are made both by businesses to consumers as well as to other businesses.

The Green Guides caution companies against making overly general claims like “eco-friendly.” Claims about recyclability should specifically state whether the claim applies to the packaging or to the product, or both. Enforcement actions by the FTC have increased under the administration of President Barack Obama. In 2009 the Commission filed three complaints against companies it said misused claims of biodegradability and four claims related to the purported environmental friendliness of clothing made from bamboo fibers. In the two terms of the George W. Bush administration, no complaints were filed against firms for misleading or deceptive environmental claims.

Some observers of the FTC hope the Commission’s updated Green Guides will address new types of environmental claims. At public workshops conducted in 2008, participants asked the Commission to expand the document to cover topics such as greenhouse gas emission reduction offset credits and Renewable Energy Certificates. Other environmental claims that have become common since the last issuance of the Green Guides address products that their marketers consider “sustainable” or “carbon neutral.”

The Commission’s Green Guides track closely ISO 14021, an International Standard published in 1999 with the title “Environmental Labels and Declarations—Self-declared environmental claims (Type II environmental labelling)” and adopted in 2001 as an American National Standard. Subcommittee 3 of ISO Technical Committee 207 is currently amending ISO 14021 and has before it some of the same issues that arose in the FTC’s public workshops.

ISO’s draft amended standard would allow qualified claims of “sustainable” or “sustainability” to be made as long as they can be justified in accordance with the 18 tests enumerated in clause 5.7 of the ISO 14021 standard. The draft amended standard addresses claims made about greenhouse gases, such as those relating to the “carbon footprint” of a product and claims that a product is “carbon neutral.” A new definition of “offsetting” refers to a “methodology by which the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere or prevention of emissions to the atmosphere from one process can be procured by the operators of another separate and unrelated process to counterbalance their own CO2 emissions that occur from the production or use of that process or product.” Claims that products composed of biomass are “renewable” are also discussed, as are claims related to “renewable energy.”

Given the past influence of ISO 14021 on the Green Guides, it can be reasonably expected that the FTC will take the amended ISO 14021 into consideration when finalizing its Green Guides revisions.

There are practical reasons for basing FTC guidance on International Standards. Primary among them is the influence that ISO standards have in international trade. When regulations adopted in the United States parallel ISO standards, actions the FTC takes to protect consumers against misleading or deceptive product claims are easier to sustain when challenged in bodies such as the World Trade Organization. Moreover, Congress in the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 instructed federal agencies to give preference when possible to voluntary consensus-based standards.

Futurepast is an active member of the US Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 207, and is participating in the development of US positions related to the amended ISO 14021 standard. Futurepast provides expertise to clients on the development of environmental claims that can be substantiated in accordance with FTC Green Guides.

© 2010, Futurepast: Inc.

COP-15 Accord Breaks New Ground In Voluntary Commitments from China, India and Brazil; Could an ISO GHG Management System Standard Help with Verification?

The COP-15 negotiations in Copenhagen did not produce a new treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. This left many countries and observers bitterly disappointed. It also left in doubt the future beyond 2012 of institutions spawned by the Kyoto Protocol such as the Clean Development Mechanism and the program of Joint Implementation, both “flexible mechanisms” of Kyoto that produce tradable carbon offset credits.

But the agreement brokered by US President Barack Obama did accomplish one goal the US has long held dear. It formally committed the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, to concrete goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions. At Chinese insistence these goals will be based on reducing the intensity of China’s growth in future emissions rather than in absolute cuts. And for now, no text has been agreed to that will give China’s or any other country’s emission reduction targets the force of international law. Nonetheless the largest of the world’s most rapidly industrializing developing countries have agreed to set targets, and that principle is important.

Many details of the new agreement have been left for resolution to future meetings. One of the most contentious is the verification regime that will permit assessment of the progress developing countries make on achieving targeted reductions. President Obama insisted that independent verification was essential and that all countries should consent to it. Earlier in the talks the Chinese had insisted that its sovereignty was at stake and that it would certify the results of actions taken without the involvement of outside parties. While the details are not yet clear, President Obama’s direct negotiations with the Chinese premier on Friday Dec. 18 appeared to have succeeded in obtaining China’s agreement to some acceptable form of monitoring and verification.

Transparency was a major theme of the COP-15 before the international leaders arrived on the scene for conference’s waning days. At an earlier COP the principle had been agreed to that emission reductions from developing countries should be “monitored, reported and verified”—or MRV’d for short. The MRV concept specifically was to be applied to “Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions” that developing countries take on a voluntary basis. Hence the interest of having the largest emitters in the rapidly industrializing world, China and India in particular, set targets and agree to some kind of regime for monitoring and verification.

It was left to a future meeting—perhaps the COP-16 in Mexico City in December 2010—to flesh out the details for monitoring, reporting and verification. In the meantime ISO—the International Organization for Standardization—presented a concept at a side event cosponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for a greenhouse gas management system standard that could be used by national governments—or regional or local subunits of governments—to manage, monitor, report and verify climate change mitigation actions. The outline of such a standard was presented by the US-based United Nations Foundation, an advocacy group, and commented on by an Indonesian delegate to the talks in his capacity as Vice Chair of ISO Technical Committee 207 Subcommittee 1 on Environmental Management Systems. Last week in my blog I described the standards published by ISO TC 207 Subcommittee 7 on Greenhouse Gas Management and Related Activities which would also support this management system approach.

The ISO approach is valuable for at least two reasons. First, it provides a framework for countries, regions, or communities to manage climate change mitigation actions at the operational level. A management system provides a ready framework for capacity building and technology transfer, which is just what the developing world needs to implement mitigation actions. Second, it provides assurance to countries furnishing climate change mitigation assistance that their investments in hundreds of locations throughout the world are properly deployed and that results are monitored, reported and verified.

ISO management system standards, in particular ISO 9001 for quality management and ISO 14001 for environmental management, are some of the most popular and widely adopted management system standards in the world. There is no doubt that a management system standard for climate change mitigation could be developed on an accelerated timetable and that it could be of enormous importance in achieving the verification objectives set forth in the Copenhagen COP-15 accord. Third-party verification could be achieved by bodies independent of any national government or the UNFCCC while at the same time augmenting the effectiveness of the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions.