Green, recycled, biodegradable—words like these are attractive to environmentally minded consumers, but on Oct. 29, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced enforcement actions against six companies marketing a product with more environmental virtue than it could deliver.
In one instance, ECM Biofilms, Inc.—an Ohio company that makes and markets MasterBatch Pellets—claimed in marketing materials that their product would break down conventional plastic “in approximately nine months to five years in nearly all landfills or wherever else they may end up.”
To the consumer hoping to lighten his ecological footprint, MasterBatch offers an intriguing solution. But according to Katherine Johnson, lead attorney on the ECM court proceeding, the company could not back up their promise.
“We determined that they did not have competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate their claim that plastics treated with their additive would biodegrade in nine months to five years, or biodegrade in a landfill,” Johnson said.
Johnson has seen cases in which companies with good intentions simply fell short, and other examples of blatant puffery, but she said that the marketing requirements shouldn’t be a mystery. According to her, most companies operating in the marketplace know about the FTC’s Green Guides.
Guiding the Claims
The Green Guides are designed to help marketers tailor their message and determine if their marketing matches the claim. First issued in 1992, the guides make clear that terms such as “compostable” and “ozone-friendly” are not just terms to attract consumers but claims with strict requirements.
“Every claim that a marketer makes, whether it’s environmental or otherwise, they need to be able to substantiate all the reasonable interpretations of how the consumer would interpret those claims,” said Johnson.
In the ECM case, in which plastics were promised to biodegrade within a specific time period, there is little for consumers to interpret. However, for general claims such as “green” and “eco-friendly,” manufacturers are required to justify these labels with specific environmental benefits.
In October, the FTC proposed changes to the Green Guides to include new guidance on marketers’ use of product certifications and seals of approval, as well as claims about materials and energy sources that are “renewable” and “carbon offset” claims.
According to Johnson, environmental claims are becoming more prevalent in the marketplace because green products have become quite important to consumers. On the FTC website, consumers can learn how to assess environmental marketing claims and spot supposedly green products that may sound too good to be true.
“At the end of the day, a claim that something biodegrades in a landfill in a short period of time—especially things like plastics—should be looked at with some skepticism,” said Johnson.
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