On Earth Day and every day, companies face increasing pressure to “go green” or be more “sustainable.” When companies heed this call—whether it’s by reducing GHG emissions, investing in renewable energy, or making their products recyclable or compostable—they understandably want to let people know about the positive actions they are taking. But, when a company touts their supposed good deeds, it must carefully craft any public communications. That is because companies—particularly consumer goods companies—face increasing scrutiny and potential litigation liability for “greenwashing” and related false advertising and consumer fraud claims.
At the heart of greenwashing claims is the assertion that a company is making false or misleading statements about its environmental performance in order to engender goodwill and increase sales or support for the company. But sometimes a company may believe that it is making truthful statements and still face greenwashing claims. Terms that might be used, like “sustainable,” are highly subjective and hard to quantify or support. A product might be technically able to be recycled, but recycling facilities may not accept that type of material for recycling. A company might think it is “leading the way” in its green initiatives, while environmental groups are less than impressed. All of these examples could lead to push back from environmental groups or regulators in a variety of forums. There could be public media campaigns, regulatory fines, and/or consumer fraud lawsuits, all around what a company thought was inspirational marketing about its sustainable practices.
So what is a company to do? Communicating a company’s sustainability goals and accomplishments may be important to leadership and investors, and can be a crucial part of finding partners willing and able to help the company achieve those sustainability goals. There is no magic formula that will avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing; but there are some best practices that should be considered.
First, follow the FTC’s Green Guides. The FTC has provided guidance on green advertising statements for decades. For example, according to the Green Guides, “a product or package should not be marketed as recyclable unless it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.” Companies should qualify recycling claims unless recycling facilities are available to at lease 60% of consumers or communities where the item is sold. As another example, according to the Green Guides, companies “should not make unqualified renewable energy claims, directly or by implication, if fossil fuel, or electricity derived from fossil fuel, is used to manufacture any part of the advertised item or is used to power any part of the advertised service, unless the marketer has matched such non-renewable energy use with renewable energy certificates.”
Notably, in December 2022, FTC announced that is was seeking public comments on potential updates to the Green Guides. FTC is seeking general guidance on the Green Guides, as well as on specific topics, including:
- Carbon offsets and climate change,
- The term “Recyclable”,
- The term “Recycled Content”, and
- The need for additional guidance regarding claims such as “compostable,” “degradable,” ozone-friendly,” “organic,” and “sustainable”, as well as those regarding energy use and energy efficiency.
The comment period remains open until April 24, 2023.
Additionally, while the Green Guides are a great resource, they are not the final word on greenwashing. Courts faced with greenwashing litigation may impose higher or lower standards, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction at issue. Moreover, many greenwashing claims will turn on whether a reasonable consumer was mislead by a company’s statement. As the FTC acknowledged in its recent announcement on the Green Guides, “consumers are increasingly conscious of how the products they buy affect the environment…” These sophisticated consumers are informed about environmental and sustainability issues, and not so easily confused or deceived. Thus companies that advertise to and communicate with sophisticated consumers should provide facts that are supportable and have sufficient context. Avoid broad, sweeping statements that will be hard to substantiate. And while setting goals are often a key part of a company’s sustainability plan, know that environmental groups are watching and holding companies accountable. Down the road, un-met goals may be framed as misleading statements. So, when setting environmental goals, understand how they will be achieved; and if they ultimately aren’t achieved be prepared to explain why.
Companies around the world will be embracing the spirit of Earth Day and talking about the ways they are reducing their environmental impact. If they also want to reduce their likelihood of greenwashing litigation, they need to make sure those communications are thoughtful, supported and provide the appropriate context. With the right planning, companies and go green and talk about it too.