The Federal Trade Commission wants to point out that a product labeled "biodegradable" will not actually break down and return to nature within one year if it ends up in a landfill.
The agency also is concerned consumers might not realize a "compostable" bag meant to be used in a municipal composting program might not break down properly if it's placed in a backyard composter.
Marketers of everything from roofing materials to soft drinks to jeans have been swept up in the push to be environmentally responsible and sustainable -- and then to sell those attributes to customers. They've changed manufacturing processes and suppliers, and sought out seals and certifications that give a nod of approval.
But companies and their lawyers may want to schedule another review of their claims.
The FTC last week issued its revised "Green Guides," making changes that the agency hopes will clear away confusing or misleading terms from ads and labels. The revisions, observers say, are likely to lead to stepped-up enforcement actions.
More than 5,000 comments were submitted to the FTC after it released the first version of the revisions in the fall of 2010. Among the more than 300 that the agency posted on its website were statements from Pittsburgh coatings and chemicals company PPG Industries, from household and personal care products company Seventh Generation, and from industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
The guides, first issued in 1992 and most recently updated in 1998, have been changed to reflect ways that the sustainable and environmental markets have changed, including touching on issues such as carbon footprints and renewable materials.
Right up front, the agency warned marketers to avoid trying to grab too big of a halo. Broad, unqualified claims such as "environmentally friendly" and "eco-friendly" are not acceptable, the FTC said, because consumers read that to cover all sorts of environmental benefits.
"Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate," said the agency in its announcement.
As for that "degradable" claim, the agency advised marketers to be careful unless they can prove a solid waste product will completely break down within a year, using the usual disposal processes. In other words, if consumers are likely to toss it in the trash can, think twice.
"This reflects a much more sophisticated grasp of the science behind environmental claims, products and processes," said Jacquie Ottman, founder and principal of New York City green marketing firm J. Ottman Consulting Inc. Ms. Ottman welcomed what she sees as the FTC's move to come down hard on unsubstantiated environmental claims.
She noted that some companies are already being careful, citing the example of the PlantBottle packaging from the Coca-Cola Co. -- technology that Pittsburgh food company H.J. Heinz Co. is licensing for use in ketchup packaging. The bottle is made partially from plants, Ms. Ottman noted, but Coke's website notes it's recyclable -- not compostable.
The FTC also tackled the issue of seals of approval and certifications from groups involved in environmental issues, hundreds of which have popped up in recent years.
"A number of those are not really robust or credible," said Arthur B. Weissman, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Green Seal Inc., which issues its own certifications after what the group describes as scientifically-based "rigorous evaluations, including on-site audits."
Mr. Weissman said there's a place for industry-based groups, such as those focused on apparel or construction, but consumers need to be given enough information to judge how independent any certification may be. The FTC called for marketers to disclose a "material connection" that might affect an endorsement.
If the agency can hold legitimate groups to a transparent standard that consumers trust, Mr. Weissman said, that will be progress. "Part of the problem over the years is that people just don't believe the green claims."
U.S. officials aren't the only ones trying to set standards, noted Jay Golden, director of the Duke Center for Sustainability and Commerce at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. French officials, among others, have tackled sustainability issues, meaning companies that work abroad and consumers whose products cross borders also need to be aware of those efforts.
Mr. Golden said he has been inspired by companies trying to look at their entire supply chains and determine the impact of their operations. Even well-intentioned efforts, such as the push toward the plant-based fuel ethanol, can have unintended consequences, he noted.
But the FTC's push could help consumers get a clearer message from marketers on the processes and resources used. "I do think you're going to start seeing that standardization," he said.
FTC's resources for consumers and businesses: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/reporter/advertising/greenguides.shtml
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018.