Truth Be Told: Changes Coming in ‘Green’ Marketing Guidelines


In my local market I stand in the “not food” aisle and look at the dishwashing liquid. I remember an old TV commercial pitching presumably safe, “mild” Palmolive in which a manicurist, Madge, tells a woman whose nails she’s tending, “you’re soaking in it.” I always think about that ad when I buy this junk, figuring maybe I can find something that’s at least a little non-toxic. Increasingly, though, I’m perplexed as virtually every brand’s label screams: “Pick me! Pick me! I’m eco-all that! You can bathe in me! I swear!” Can this be true? Uh, no, it can’t.

Greenwashing, the tsunami of eco-friendly white noise we experience each day in brand-land, is everywhere, taking advantage of our better instincts and our lack of self-education regarding the products we buy. Every day, real live Mad Men are pulling the eco-cover over our eyes to sell us stuff based on vague and sometimes false claims that what they’re selling is good for us, the environment, and all creatures, great and small. Acknowledging this, and in an effort to protect us, the Federal Trade Commission released its “Green Guides” in 1992 (revised in 1996 and 1998) to “help marketers ensure that the claims they make are true and substantiated.” Hmm – 1998. A dozen years ago.

Last week, the FTC proposed updates to those Green Guides designed to make them easier for companies to understand and use. The changes include new guidance on marketers’ use of “product certifications and seals of approval, renewable energy claims, renewable materials claims, and carbon offset claims.” (They’re looking to hear from you, by the way, on proposed changes until December 10, after which they’ll decide which changes to make final.)

In a brief homage to ridiculously diplomatic language, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said: “In recent years, businesses have increasingly used “˜green’ marketing to capture consumers’ attention and move Americans toward a more environmentally friendly future. But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things. The proposed updates to the Green Guides will help businesses better align their product claims with consumer expectations.”

Yeah, well, nice companies need nice reminders every so often, I guess.

Here are some highlights (and we quote):

Degradable: For solid waste products other than those destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities, the proposal clarifies that the “reasonably short period of time” for complete decomposition is no more than one year after customary disposal… Marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities because decomposition will not occur within one year.

(Read: If it’s still going to be around a year after it’s been used, it’s not “degradable.”)

Free-of: Even if true, claims that an item is free-of a substance may be deceptive if the item has substances that pose the same or similar environmental risk as the substance not present.

(Read: You can’t play with poisons and say you’re poison free.)

General Environmental Benefit (e.g., “green,” “eco-friendly”): Marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims. They are difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate. Qualifications should be clear and prominent, and should limit the claim to a specific benefit.

(Read: Enough with the eco-babble. If it doesn’t mean anything, don’t say it.)

There’s more good stuff in this long overdue update. Take a quick perusal of the proposed changes and you’ll get a sense of what’s been going down (i.e. overlooked) in the world of greenwashing over the past twelve years. After all, for my money, this isn’t about fixing something that ain’t broke.

Image: Samuel Mann; See also: GOOD

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at