New FTC regulations against “greenwashing”: what designers need to know /

by Corbet Curfman

Design and communication firms should be aware of the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations affecting products communicating their "green" aspects called the Green Guides. Don Carli, Executive Vice President and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Sustainable Communication, does a phenomenal job of describing what is at stake for the FTC regulations here.

These new regulations could benefit companies that are creating progressive and low-impact products in a sustainable way, (e.g., renewable energy or RECs, recycled materials, low-carbon footprint, etc.). The regulations could potentially impact companies using greenwashing as a way to position their products. If 20% of an audience is confused by the terms being communicated, this leads to questionable use. The offender can then be reported to the Better Business Bureau's process, which reports cases to the FTC. The Green Guides are not law, but guidance for enforcement. The enforcement is already in place with the Lanham Act and will lead to penalties in the form of fines. Under these regulations, design and communications firms can be held at fault for publishing unsubstantiated claims. This is independent of their client's word. If a firm is held liable, they will be required to substantiate the claim at the time of the challenge, not after the fact. This means that you’d better know what you are getting into before the FTC comes calling.

People are getting tired of companies using terms like “green, natural, renewable,” and not being able to trust what they mean. Using these terms on products that do not certify their claims creates a valueless proposition. Instead of helping to promote the use of sustainable practices by companies and increasing the market, they are driving consumers away. This is not good for anyone. It pushes people away from companies that are creating positive, low-impact products. These same consumers are then pushed further into the idea that “sustainability” is a green fad not likely to last. Here is a supporting statistic from TerraChoice quoted by Don Carli.

"According to a recent survey by the marketing firm TerraChoice, the number of products claiming to be green increased 73% since 2009, and more than 95% of consumer products marketed as “green” make misleading or inaccurate claims—a practice TerraChoice calls “greenwashing.” In addition to potentially being illegal, all too often these misleading claims violate several AIGA standards of professional practice.

These new regulations will give a backbone to use of these terms. Hopefully this provides a channel for verification and certification of sustainable practices and processes that everyone will learn to trust. This by no means will keep the slick marketers from finding loopholes and promoting disingenuous products. If people want to make money by tricking people into buying things, they will. To find out more and review general questions designers had about the Green Guides, check out this recap of a tweet chat with Don Carli.

AIGA Seattle encourages thoughtful, responsible dialogue. Please read our policies on commenting.

Karen Madsen

Very fine article addressing a little thought about subject in our industry. km


I really appreciate free, scucicnt, reliable data like this.

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