After the recent passage of Earth Day, companies released a number of advertisements promoting sustainable initiatives, earth-friendly products, and eco-conscious production methods. While this is an ideal time to for companies to showcase their green initiatives and sustainability goals, what has developed over time, however, is a trend of “greenwashing” to take advantage of marketing and advertising around Earth Day.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is “when a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but actually isn’t making any notable sustainability efforts.” The phrase was first coined in the 1980s and has grown in popularity as consumers have become more eco-conscious.
However, with the rise of eco-conscious consumer comes an increase in advertisements using unregulated terms, like “natural” and “organic”, which are meant to evoke an environmentally friendly tone without, necessarily, the environmentally friendly actions.
The FTC Steps In
The FTC issued its first Green Guide in 1992, which it subsequently revised in 1996, 1998, and 2012. The overarching goal of the Green Guide is to inform companies about:
1) the general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims;
2) how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate these claims; and
3) how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.
Notably, the “Green Guides are not agency rules or regulations. Instead, they describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may or may not find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act.” 
The FTC has issued numerous enforcement actions and notices to companies for false and misleading environmental claims – including a $450,000 penalty for one company. However, it’s not just the FTC bringing actions against companies, environmental groups have utilized the FTC to bring claims against companies.
Some Key Takeaways from the FTC
- Get Specific: Use of broad terminology creates inferences that are difficult to substantiate. For example, instead of saying a product’s packaging is made of “recycled material” it should say “made of 40% recycled material.”
- Explain the basis: If using a certification or seal companies must explain the basis for the certification – not just the environmental benefits
- Check Definitions: Certain claims, like “compostable” and “degradable” have scientific definitions that must be met in order to use these terms. Similarly, companies cannot claim their product is “free-of” an ingredient without meeting certain requirements.
- Clarify your Comparisons: When making a comparison claim, state what you are comparing the product against. For example, if saying a product “generates 10% less waste”, instead state the product “generates 10% less waste than the previous version of product.”
 What Is Greenwashing, and How Do You Spot It? – businessnewsdaily.com, Carlyann Edwards, updated February 24, 2022.