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Examining the FTC’s Revised ‘Green Guides’

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Not to state the obvious, but environmental marketing is a booming business.

It’s an industry that now has 68 percent of U.S. consumers as potential customers; American who can be labeled as “light green” consumers (i.e., they purchase environmentally-friendly products on occasion), according to a study by Mintel Reports.

But rapid growth has also caused concerns among marketing-services professionals, advocacy groups and regulatory bodies about revamping best practices and guidelines for environmental marketing claims and messaging. These concerns have been raised as public relations and marketing professionals, including PRSA members who abide by the Society’s Code of Ethics, work to ensure that consumers are fully informed and understand the environmental impact of the products they purchase and the services they use.

It’s with this in mind that PRSA has filed a formal brief with the Federal Trade Commission in response to the Commission’s proposed revisions to its “Green Guides” for environmental marketing (which were last revised in 1998).

As Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, chairman of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), first noted in an October PRSAY post, “Green claims are pervasive (and sometimes spurious), and it’s become far too difficult to determine who is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Misleading eco-statements are so common, in fact, that they have a name: “Greenwashing.” They also became the focus of a PRSA Professional Standards Advisory (PSA) in 2009.”

A revised set of environmental marketing guidelines will be welcomed in an era where public skepticism over claims made in emerging markets, such as green products and services, is pervasive. A 2008 AdAge article noted that 20 percent of consumers never believe the environmental marketing claims they see, and just two-thirds believe the claims “only sometimes.”

Clearly a disconnect exists between those who develop environmental marketing materials and messaging, and the consumers they are trying to reach and influence. The FTC’s revised guidelines should go a long way toward closing that gap by providing a modernized set of best practices for ensuring the public’s right to know what is and is not truthful in environmental messaging and advertisements.

Below are highlights of PRSA’s commentary to the FTC. Let us know your thoughts, and also what you think of the current state of environmental marketing.

  • PRSA shares the view of the FTC that the public is best served by a limit in “blanket” or general claims of “environmental friendliness,” an industry-wide end to the use of spurious or misleading certifications or seals of approval and full disclosure of verifiable claims regarding a product or service’s environmental benefits (and limitations).
  • Further guidance is needed regarding the applicability of the FTC’s guidelines to the use and practice of broader public relations and marketing communications activities.
  • Marketers have an obligation and responsibility to the public — and to their clients and employers — to ensure they provide the most truthful and accurate information, regardless of the medium or presentation materials used.
  • Specificity and transparency should be prevalent in all marketing communications and materials.
  • PRSA encourages the FTC to provide an additional level of specificity and clarity within certain proposed revisions.
  • PRSA also cautions the Commission to thoroughly consider the potential long-term ramifications of continuing to allow for unqualified environmental marketing claims for certain product and service categories.
  • Marketers should keep in mind the public’s current state of sentiment regarding the movement toward greater transparency and honesty in advertising and marketing communications.

About the author

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA

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