Tip Sheet: Green Or Shades of Grey? A Green Guides Primer

Communicators continue to struggle with how and when to articulate green attributes. Exaggerated claims and complex issues have created challenges for PR professionals. Terms such as “recyclable” and “recycled” are often misunderstood. “Compostable” and “biodegradable” are interchanged. And, reductions of materials like paper and others are often taken out of context or not communicated in a way that’s easily understood.

As a CSR expert and PR professional, it’s unclear whether the claims being made stem from a lack of knowledge about the issues or an inability to clearly communicate these attributes to a broader audience. Seemingly innocent words like “green,” “eco-friendly” or “fair trade” can dupe consumers and cause great doubt.

Cone’s latest Green Gap Trend Tracker reaffirms the ongoing need for clarity. More than half of consumers surveyed (54%) believe common environmental terms such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” indicate a product has a positive (36%) or neutral (18%) impact on the environment. Just 3% understand the claim means the product has less impact than a previous version.

Last month the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated its Green Guides, which are designed to protect consumers from deceptive marketing and loosely enforce federal and state laws around unfair competition and consumer protection.


Nongovernmental organizations also use the guidelines as ammunition for class-action lawsuits. The scope of the Green Guides applies to marketing claims in public relations, advertising, labeling and promotional materials.

Just last year, SC Johnson settled class action lawsuits over its use of an internally developed certification: GreenList. The company used the GreenList seal on products like Windex, which were perceived by consumers as a credible, third-party certification even though it was internally developed. The company found itself in the courtroom due to consumer confusion over the label. So bad things can happen.

Here are the highlights of the new changes:

General environmental claims are out. “Green” and “eco-friendly” should not be used unless connected to a specific benefit such as “plastic reduced by 50% compared to our previous version”.

Scope of certification is limited and must be third-party validated. Creating your own “logo” that may be perceived by consumers as a certification is out. And, certifications must be narrowly defined to the attribute, such as Fair Trade.

“Free of” can’t be used if it wasn’t in the product to begin with. It’s also no longer acceptable to use the term “Free Of” if the replacement ingredient carries the same environmental or health risk.

Non-toxic must be safe for people, pets and cause no harm to environment. This must be substantiated across all three to make the claim.

Renewable energy must extend from production to product packaging. If companies are only using renewable energy in a portion of the production cycle, they are now required to explicitly share the percentage of renewables used, as well as the type (e.g. solar, wind). “Made with Renewables” won’t be sufficient.

Biodegradability and compostability must be real and attainable. Compostable must mean it can be composted in home composters and if not, limitations must be disclosed on-pack. Biodegradable must degrade in a reasonable period (one year or less) and there must be clear messaging on how to dispose of these items, as items destined for a garbage bag cannot degrade.

If you’re not an environmental guru, here’s what you should ask:?

â–¶ Is the green attribute small in the context of the overall product or service impact? Is it differentiating or hold potential?

â–¶ Are we sure this environmental improvement is better? Do we have data to support our claims?

â–¶ Are we making broad “green” or “eco-friendly” claims and how can we focus them?

The Green Guides, while imperfect, should help level the playing field for consumers. It puts communicators on notice and hopefully will empower rather than disenfranchise brands who continue to see the power of green in reducing cost for the business and reducing impact on the planet. PRN


Jonathan Yohannan is EVP at Cone Communications, and leads the CSR/Sustainable Business practice at Cone. He can be reached at jyohannan@coneinc.com.