Guidelines for using environmental marketing claims such as "recyclable," "biodegradable," "compostable," etc., have been established by the Federal Trade Commission. The guides themselves are not enforceable regulations, nor do they have the force and effect of law. These guides specifically address the application of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act -- which makes deceptive acts and practices in or affecting commerce unlawful -- to environmental advertising and marketing practices. Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims provide the basis for voluntary compliance with such laws by members of industry, and are available from the EPA and the FTC.
FTC Environmental Marketing Guidelines
In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission issued its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, which are based on data from FTC investigations, hearings, and public opinion. While these guides are not legally enforceable, they provide guidance to marketers in conforming with legal requirements. The guides apply to advertising, labeling, and other forms of marketing to consumers, and do not preempt state or local laws or regulations.
The FTC guides specify that whenever marketers make objective environmental claims -- explicitly or implied -- these must be proved by competent and reliable evidence. The guides outline four general concerns that apply to all environmental claims:
- Qualifications and disclosures should be clear and prominent to prevent deception.
- Environmental claims should make clear whether they apply to the product, the package, or a component of either. Claims need not be qualified with regard to minor, incidental components of the product or package.
- Environmental claims should not overstate the environmental attributes or benefit. Marketers should avoid implying a significant environmental benefit where the benefit is, in fact, negligible.
- A claim comparing the environmental attributes of one product with those of another should make the basis for the comparison sufficiently clear and should be proved.
Certain environmental marketing claims are addressed specifically:
General Environmental Benefit Claims
In general, unqualified general environmental claims are difficult to interpret, and may have a wide range of meanings to consumers. Every express and material implied claim conveyed to consumers about an objective quality should be proved. Unless they can be substantiated, broad environmental claims should be avoided or qualified.
Degradable, Biodegradable, and Photodegradable
In general, unqualified claims of compostability should be proved by evidence that the product will completely break down and return to nature, that is, decompose into elements found in nature, within a short period of time after consumers dispose of it in the customary way. Such claims should be qualified to the extent necessary to avoid consumer deception about: (a) the product or package's ability to degrade in the environment where it is customarily disposed of; and (b) the extent and rate of degradation.
In general, unqualified claims of compostability should be substantiated by evidence that all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost (e.g., soil conditioning material, mulch). This should take place in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting program or facility, or in a home compost pile or device. Compostable claims should be qualified to the extent necessary to avoid consumer deception:
- if municipal composting facilities are not available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the product is sold;
- if the claim misleads consumers about the environmental benefit provided when the product is disposed of in a landfill; or
- if consumers misunderstand the claim to mean that the package can be safely composted in their home compost pile or device, when in fact it cannot.
In general, a product or package should not be marketed as recyclable unless it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the solid waste stream for use as raw materials in the manufacture or assembly of a new product or package. Unqualified claims of recyclability may be made if the entire product or package, excluding incidental components, is recyclable.
Claims about products with both recyclable and non-recyclable components should be adequately qualified. If incidental components significantly limit the ability to recycle a product, the claim would be deceptive. If, because of its size or shape, a product is not accepted in recycling programs, it should not be marketed as recyclable. Qualification may be necessary to avoid consumer deception about the limited availability of recycling programs and collection sites if recycling collection sites are not available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities.
In general, claims of recycled content should only be made for materials that have been recovered or diverted from the solid waste stream, either during the manufacturing process (pre-consumer) or after consumer use (post-consumer). An advertiser should be able to prove that pre-consumer content would otherwise have entered the solid waste stream. Distinctions made between pre- and post-consumer content should be substantiated. Unqualified claims may be made if the entire product or package, excluding minor, incidental components, is made from recycled material. Products or packages only partially made of recycled material should be qualified to show the amount, by weight, in the finished product or package.
In general, an unqualified claim of refillableness should not be asserted unless a system is provided for:
(1) the collection and return of the package for refill; or
(2) the later refill of the package by consumers with product subsequently sold in another package. The claim should not be made if it is up to consumers to find ways to refill the package.
Ozone Safe and Ozone Friendly
In general, a product should not be advertised as "ozone safe," "ozone friendly," or as not containing CFC's if the product contains any ozone depleting chemical. Claims about the reduction of a product's ozone depletion potential may be made if adequately proved.
For copies of the FTC Environmental Marketing Guidelines in their entirety, and the environmental assessment of these guidelines, and news releases on FTC cases in the green-marketing area, contact:
FTC Public Reference Branch Room 130 Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20580 (202) 326-2222