FTC Issues Revised "Green Guides

The Federal Trade Commission issued revised “Green Guides” that are designed to help marketers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive.
The revisions to the FTC’s Green Guides reflect a wide range of public input, including hundreds of consumer and industry comments on previously proposed revisions.  They include updates to the existing Guides, as well as new sections on the use of carbon offsets, “green” certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims.

“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated.  The FTC’s changes to the Green Guides will level the playing field for honest business people and it is one reason why we had such broad support.”
In revising the Green Guides, the FTC modified and clarified sections of the previous Guides and provided new guidance on environmental claims that were not common when the Guides were last reviewed. 

Revisions to Previous Guidance. Among other modifications, the Guides caution marketers not to make broad, unqualified claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly” because the FTC’s consumer perception study confirms that such claims are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits.  Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate.
The Guides also:
  • advise marketers not to make an unqualified degradable claim for a solid waste product unless they can prove that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within one year after customary disposal;
  • caution that items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year, so marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for these items; and
  • clarify guidance on compostable, ozone, recyclable, recycled content, and source reduction claims.
New Sections.  The Guides contain new sections on: 1) certifications and seals of approval; 2) carbon offsets, 3) free-of claims, 4) non-toxic claims, 5) made with renewable energy claims, and 6) made with renewable materials claims.
The new section on certifications and seals of approval, for example, emphasizes that certifications and seals may be considered endorsements that are covered by the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, and includes examples that illustrate how marketers could disclose a “material connection” that might affect the weight or credibility of an endorsement.  In addition, the Guides caution marketers not to use environmental certifications or seals that don’t clearly convey the basis for the certification, because such seals or certifications are likely to convey general environmental benefits.

Finally, either because the FTC lacks a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance or wants to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules or guidance of other agencies, the Guides do not address use of the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic.”  Organic claims made for textiles and other products derived from agricultural products are covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.
The FTC first issued its Green Guides in 1992 to help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims.  It revised the Guides in 1996 and 1998, and proposed further revisions in October 2010 to take into account recent changes in the marketplace.  The guidance they provide includes:
  • general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims;
  • how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims, and how marketers can substantiate these claims; and
  • how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.
The Guides issued today take into account nearly 340 unique comments and more than 5,000 total comments received since the FTC released the proposed revised Guides in the fall of 2010.  They also include information gathered from three public workshops and a study of how consumers perceive and understand environmental claims.

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.   Under Section 5, the agency can take enforcement action against deceptive claims, which ultimately can lead to Commission orders prohibiting deceptive advertising and marketing and fines if those orders are later violated.

The FTC has brought several actions in recent years related to deceptive recyclability, biodegradable, bamboo, and environmental certification claims as part of its overall effort to ensure that environmental marketing is truthful and substantiated.

Consumer and Business Education.  The FTC today also released several business and consumer education resources designed to help users understand the Guides.  These include: 1) “Environmental Claims – Summary of Green Guides,” a four-page summary of the changes in the Guides; 2) “The Green Guides,” a video explaining highlights of the changes; 3) a new page on the FTC Business Center, with links to legal documents, the Guides and other “green” content; 4) a Business Center blog post; and 5) related consumer information.

From, 2012-Oct-01

The Blooming Infrastructure of Greenness

Sustainability is such a broad concept, it should surprise no one that its implementation will require a lot of pieces being put in place.

And that's happening.  Seen at the Alt Build in Santa Monica, CA:

A green realtor called the The House Agents was exhibiting.  A green realtor helps sellers green their homes for sale, including hooking up the homeowner with incentive programs and financing options to facilitiate necessary work.  A green realtor identifies green-minded buyers, and helps those buyers tell the difference between sustainable homes and greenwashed properties.  They also can help package up a "hydrid" loan that provides up to $50,000 for cosmetic repairs, sustainability improvements, and energy efficient upgrades.

This is a positive development.

It's also a positive indicator.  It means there in a rising number of customers for this kind of thinking.  Sustainably-driven living choices that are translating into buying and selling decisions.

If you've been thinking that green is just a fad, think again.  It's not going to fade away. The sooner you make sustainability part of your business model, the better you will fare.

Greenwash On Wheels

No knock against Toyota or its Prius hybrid.  I'm thinking of the driver.  In this hot climate, what environmentally conscious person buys a heat-absorbing black Prius? 

Someone for whom the purchase is not really a sustainable choice, just a sustainable statement. 

When the weather heats up and she turns on the air conditioning, it becomes pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about it that her sustainability credibility is pretty thin.  Her black Prius is pure greenwash.

Every day, Chusid Associates helps building products manufacturers tell their “green” stories in websites, press releases, magazine articles, sales sheets, data sheets, guide specifications, trade show displays, continuing education, social media and more.  Green has become a major aspect of marketing.  This means that the consumers – in our case, design professionals, contractors, and building owners – have gotten and continue to get more sophisticated.

In the current environment, a green story gets attention, but increasingly, greenwash gets seen through.  Design professionals can smell it.  LEED AP’s are cropping up in every architectural office.  And they care.  Owners and even contractors are starting to know, and they’re starting to care.

Green is not a fad, it’s not going away.  As has been noted here before, it’s becoming standard.  Products that can’t meet the standard will see their markets shrink.

If you have a green story, now is the time to tell it. 

If you don’t know whether you’ve got a green story, now is the time to figure it out (we can help).

If your product has a green problem, now is the time to address it.  There are many avenues to tackling a green problem, and there are experts available.  Get some help, save your product, save the planet.

But don’t waste your time trying to greenwash a black Prius.

Greenwashing Doesn't Pay

Greenwashing is a bad practice (I'm sure we all agree on that) that hurts the credibility of the industry, and the perpetrator, when it's discovered.

Compounding the sin is Bad Greenwashing, which not only distorts the truth, but insults the reader's intelligence, as well.

I recently read a manufacturer's trade association paper that notes 35% of the manufacturing plants in this field "have investigated alternative energy sources."  (It refers to an historically energy-intensive process, and the chief sustainability knock against the product in question is energy consumption and associated CO2 emissions in its production.)

Decoded: 65% haven't even looked at the possibility of alternative energy.  To make matters worse, the other 35% merely have investigated, with no indication that any of them have done a blessed thing about actually changing.  

The statement was intended to provide reassurance that the industry is improving on its thorniest environmental problem.  But if you think about their argument for two seconds, it's so weak that it becomes an embarrassment.  The facts are bad. The attempt to greenwash them actually highlights how bad they are, and damages the credibility of the entire paper.  (Pity, too, since the paper raises some other honest points about the sustainable performance of the product.)

Greenwashing, like crime, doesn't pay.

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What the heck do all these labels mean?
"Green" labels are everywhere today, from your breakfast coffee to every other building product. While there are benefits, if you don't speak the language of labels, certifications, and standards, it's easy to choose a product that appears to be sustainable, but isn't really.

Certifications and standards explained invites you to a certifications extravaganza: a one-hour live webcast packed with key understandings to sort out the green from the greenwash. We'll cover:

The value of "third-party" certifications vs. first- and second-party

What is a label vs. a certification vs. a standard
When does a single vs. a multi-attribute certification matter?
Less well-known but essential certifications for paints, wallboard, carpet, resilient flooring, furniture, wallcoverings, and composite panels
And a lot more.

What should I pay attention to?
In each major product category, some attributes are really important from a health and environmental standpoint, and some are secondary. We'll look at what really matters, and which labels deliver the goods.

You may be hearing more about EPD, LCAs, and other emerging trends. We'll forecast what's ahead, but also be frank with you about what matters today. We'll also tip you off to key tools that you can trust to screen products.

Your questions answered:
Is FSC still the "gold standard" in forestry?
Which emissions certifications really protect our health
Which environmental claims are relevant, and which are subterfuge?
Can you get a green product from a dirty company?

Attendees of this free webcast will receive:
One LEED CE hour
A CE certificate good for other reporting
A free email subscription to the GreenSpec Insights

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Environmental Risks Not Immediately Apparent

Manufacturers often rush to launch new products, hoping to gain a competitive edge. Yet the environmental risks of a new material or technology are not always apparent until the product has been on sale for a period. This is a problem even in industries such as pharmaceuticals in which products must undergo extensive testing and regulatory review for both effectiveness and safety.

It is an even bigger risk in the construction products industry. New building products may require testing to demonstrate certain aspects of safety -- such as fire resistance -- in order to comply with building codes. Yet there are not industry-wide  protocols for testing the environmental impact of a product, nor regulations mandating prior approval before marketing.

A case in point is nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide. The material has impressive potential for reducing airborne pollutants and making concrete self-cleaning. A marketing director promoting the product once assured me the compound is inert, and saw no reason to delay the product's introduction until it could be tested for impact on ecosystems. When he boosted that he could eat a spoonful without ill effects, I responded, "Yes, but you are not a coral polyp."

Now, new research suggests my concern was not unwarranted:

According to a new Northeastern University study, titanium dioxide nanoparticles (nTiO2) can disrupt photosynthetic organisms vital to aquatic ecosystems. Long used in paints, coatings, cement, and tile to create bright white coloring, titanium dioxide is now used in nanoparticle form in cosmetics, sunscreens, food coloring, and even building products, particularly white concrete products that are claimed to clean the air.

April Gu, Carla Cherchi, and other environmental engineers studied how nTiO2 affects one blue-green algae organism that contributes to aquatic nitrogen and carbon cycles. The researchers found that algae growth was reduced by 90 percent and nitrogen fixation activity was diminished when the organisms were exposed to nTiO2 at levels similar to those found in wastewater. Effects increased with exposure time and nTiO2 concentrations. The laboratory study did not evaluate the effect of titanium nanoparticles in the environment, or whether such particles are released from common products. For more information visit
Elsewhere, I have suggested prudent measures that can be taken to use TiO2 in building products, even while further environmental safety research is being conducted. The point of this post is to urge all members of the construction industry to proceed with caution when investigating new materials that have not been rigorously tested for environmental safety.

Greenwash of Week - Cement Industry

As an architect, I was trained that my first responsibility is to be a good steward of the environment. I believe this should also be the first responsibility of everyone involved in the construction industry.

I feel shocked and saddened, then, when I read a news story like the following:
N.Y. cement factory plans to fight new EPA regulations
A New York-based cement plant, LaFarge, along with other companies, opposes new EPA regulations that require mercury-emissions reductions at cement plants. Portland Cement Association, an industry trade group, says the emissions limits are too low and it will be difficult to meet the requirements. However, environmental groups say that noncompliance will lead to more toxic pollution. Public News Service (11/09/2010)
LaFarge's website proclaims that the company "is convinced that sustained economic growth cannot occur without social progress, environmental protection and respect for local communities." Too bad the marketing and operations departments in the company don't communicate with each other.

PCA's website posits that the cement industry. "is not content to simply have a green end product." This leaves open for interpretation whether "green" is a synonym for the environment or for profit.


I offer a strategy, however, that will solve cement plant pollution without requiring the EPA to place caps on mercury emissions. All we have to do is require the executives of cement manufacturing companies and associations -- and their spouses and children -- to live within a mile downwind of their plants.

Certainly, their tune about the cost/benefit of emissions will change as a result.
For more on this controversy, see my previous post on Cement Emissions and Social Justice.

Hyperbole vs. Credibility

I received a bit of spam from an individual named Stephen Sands, who made me an offer I could so easily refuse.  His spam began:

“With stronger web placement on the major search engines, your online results could be infinite.” That was all I needed to read to know that I never want to do business with this guy, even if he’s right.   I have a kneejerk reaction to people who toss around promises with the concept “infinite” in them: I figure they’re probably just blowing smoke in the first place.  They’ve got nothing and they’re trying to hype into something, so it’s no worse a lie to hype it into ‘everything.’

Perhaps Stephen Sands actually has a lot to offer, I don’t know; but his opening line made me certain that I’ll never find out.

In an atmosphere of so much competition for communications channels, the temptation to speak ‘louder’ is more intense than ever.  But we also live in an atmosphere of consumerist defensiveness and distrust, where hyperbole often has a negative impact.  That means we need to be both careful and thoughtful about what we claim in ads, sales literature, and other statements about products. 

Careful, because some statements may have legal implications such as an implied warranty. 

Thoughtful, because inflated claims create a credibility problem.

The first job of advertising and sales literature is, certainly, to get attention.  But we all know from grade school that there are both productive and unproductive ways to get attention.  Don’t choose a way that torpedoes the second job, which is to create the foundation for trust.  If the nature of your claims is too good to be true, people won’t believe them.  If the tone you set is over the top, people will  be suspicious.  If the crafting of the message impairs your credibility, it doesn’t matter how good your product is.

If, on the other hand, you can state some significant truths in an interesting manner, readers may trust you long enough to find out more.

Resist the temptation to hype, for truly, it is a fate worse than death.  (Oops!  I mean, resist the temptation to hype because you’ll probably do yourself more harm than good.)

The simplest test is to step back, look at your literature, and ask yourself, “If my competitor were saying this, would I believe it?”

Greenwash of Week - Office Noise

LogiSon offers sound masking systems to help eliminate unwanted noise in the workplace. But if you click on their website, you will get dosed with a high volume talking head. By the time you have found the turn off sound button, you will have disrupted the quiet productivity of your co-workers.
The person shown above walks into the screen unannounced, creating uninvited noise.

If you are going to sell sound solutions, please don't contribute to the problem by generating unsolicited noise in my office.

Greenwash of Week - Brick Competition

If you promote the sustainability of a product, you should be willing to have the market scrutinize all aspects of your product's environmental performance. Unfortunately, this concept is lost on the organizers of the Second Annual BrickStainable Design Competition.

Their website declares:
"The focus of the BrickStainable Competition is to encourage people to think beyond all boundaries and “re-think” brick in the context of its material qualities and current construction technologies"
"...this Competition seeks to attract and promote new ideas in the manufacturing of, the application of, or the physical arrangement of ... masonry units that promote energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable building design."
And their goal is:
"to stimulate the local and international design community by challenging them with a competition seeking ideas, concepts and assemblies which hold the greatest potential for shifting paradigms for the masonry industry as they relate to energy efficiency and environmental regenerative building design...   Products with similar sustainable qualities as clay masonry have the potential to take us to carbon neutrality through integrative design. As this initiative continues to develop and we obtain support from other industries that believe in our vision, the built environment will move toward standards and practices that demand the use of all inherently sustainable materials."  (Emphasis added.)
These are grand and noble aspirations, and one can hope that architects apply their creative thinking towards creating more sustainable brick construction.

So where is the greenwash?

The fine print requires the use of "clay masonry units" in the design.  This eliminates the opportunity for designers to consider recent innovations -- such as fly ash brick -- that mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions associated with firing clay masonry.

If the clay brick industry wants to promote the sustainable qualities of their own products -- and there are many -- then that is well and good.  But please spare us the preaching about "thinking beyond all boundaries," "shifting paradigms," "new ideas in manufacturing, and the exploration of 'products with similar qualities as clay masonry.'"

Greenwash of Week

The following claim is from a building product manufacturer's sales literature:
"The copper used by [Company] is recycled, is recyclable and has a zero life cycle cost, since it is warranted for the life of the wall."
Copper products can contain high percentages of recycled content, provide a long service life, and can be recycled without loss of metallurgical value. However, it is greenwash to claim that this amounts to a zero life cycle cost.

The cost of fabricating, transporting, and installing the product virtually guarantees that the product will have a positive life cycle cost. The only exception I can imagine would be if the raw value of copper escalates so much that the product's scrap value in the future offsets the present value of construction. But I doubt the manufacturer intends to warrant this economic claim.

The sales sheet would have been just as effective if the manufacturer had claimed:

"The copper used by [Company] is recycled, is recyclable and is warranted for the life of the wall."

Goodbye Green Wash - Not Quite

UL Environmental is a new division of Underwriters Laboratories and offers "independent green claims validation, product certification, training, advisory services and standards development."
In their exhibit at Neocon, they were giving away bars of soap emblazoned with the slogan, "Goodbye Green Wash." The slogan and the soap create a strong and memorable image that explains the benefit of the company's services.

Still, they missed valuable opportunities to "walk the talk":
  • The packaging does not list products ingredients, place of manufacturer, or whether sustainable paper and printing were used -- important information that can help a consumer assess the environmental impact of the product.
  • More, the fragrance in the soap, while pleasant enough, could irritate show attendees with chemical sensitivities, and does not support environmental goals for indoor air quality.
The point I am trying to make is that claiming an environmental benefit for a product can act, ironically, as an invitation for greater scrutiny of all aspects of the product.

A Neocon publication from Interior Design, written by Penny Bonda, put it this way:
Remember, as you engage with showroom personnel, to ask the right questions: Where did this product come from? What is it made of? How is it made? How is it maintained? How does it affect the well-being of the building occupants? How much energy does it use? How do I know you're telling me the truth? Knowing whom to trust in this era of greenwash is a huge challenge, sorting out the science is difficult for those not schooled in technical matters.
On the positive side, the soap is one piece of trade show swag that I will probably use, unlike the plastic gizmos that will sit on my desk for a week and then wind up in a recycling bin or trash can.

Off the Schneid

At CONSTRUCT I asked a question at a trade show booth that I've been asking for years. I finally got a real answer. Now that the manufacturer is finally "off the schneid", I will consider using the product in future projects.

We're hockey fans in our family, and for a player to be "on the schneid" is to have not yet personally scored a goal in a game, deeper and deeper in the season. (Here's another explanation.) I think of it as failing, repeatedly, to meet expectations. When I say that a manufacturer is "on the schneid", they are failing to offer me the vital information I need in order to specify their products in my projects.

This particular manufacturer repeatedly refused to answer a question I felt was important to my work as a specifier: "What is the source for the product?" Sometimes I asked, "Animal, mineral, or vegetable?" I got all kinds of non-answers, like "It's a polymerized resin." I felt certain that the manufacturer hoped to hide the source because it didn't seem very green. This product has a Cradle-To-Cradle certification, so the manufacturer has paid big bucks for their green story, and I'm sure they didn't want to ruin their green image with specifics that seemed to contradict that story. The answer isn't in their literature or on their web site; it's clear that the information was intentionally withheld. When I pressed for my answer, I was told that the information was proprietary.

I finally got my answer, last week at the trade show. The product is, in fact, a petroleum distillate, not at all surprising in the context of the schneid. My reaction, though, was not to reject the product out of hand, which is perhaps what they feared. Rather, I was relieved. Now I have the data to balance the green story, which is actually quite admirable; the functionality, also impressive; and the environmental impact, which may still be less than that of competing products. I wouldn't feel right about specifying a product whose manufacturer refused to answer appropriate questions about resource use, but I can now reasonably consider using the product.

Consider carefully the information you consider proprietary. Will refusing to share it put you "on the schneid" with specifiers?

Flushing Branding Down the Drain

Can a company simultaneously promote water conservation and conspicuous consumption? Kohler Company has done an admirable job of developing and promoting plumbing fixtures and trim that help conserve water, including flushometer tank toilets and waterless urinals. And, they have worked hard to make water conservation part of their company's branding. At last fall's GreenBuild show, a banner above the Kohler booth proclaimed the company as, "The Water Conservation Company".
A similar theme is visible in the recent ad on the right, proclaiming, "Bold. Conservation." But while this ad ran in National Geographic, the ad on the left, showing a shower system with very high water consumption, ran in Wired.

I respect niche marketing, but I also respect integrity. To my way of thinking, their water conservation positioning goes down the drain when they also promote such wasteful showering.

Let us know what you think. And for further discussion, see EcoGeek.

Greenwash of Week

"Because a concrete masonry unit is 80 percent air by volume and is composed of 90% plentiful inert material, it has naturally low-embodied energy. It is already an ecologically sound building component." Brochure for Pixel Blocks, a new decorative concrete masonry unit.

First, the math doesn't make sense. Unless the air is included as part of the inert material, the total of the air and the "inert material" would be 170 percent.

More, in California, where the brochure was distributed, CMU is usually filled with mortar, so the product as used has only a small air content within the concrete's voids.

Next, I can't imagine what part of a CMU is not inert. I have watched cured concrete, and it usually just stays in one place and is not very chemically reactive. Are they referring to calcium hydroxide that can form akaline deposits on the surface of concrete?

Finally, the brochure does not address the real ecological footprint of the product -- both detriments like the high CO2 emissions associated with portland cement, and positive features like the durability of the product.

FTC Turns Greenwashing Into Fraud

From a New York Times online article, "FTC Moves May Signal Start of 'Greenwashing' Crackdown":
The agency's Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or Green Guides, define terms such as "recyclable" and "biodegradable" and explain how businesses should back up environmental assertions. Though FTC cannot force businesses to adopt greener practices, Section 5 of the FTC Act authorizes the agency to intervene when businesses are misrepresenting their practices to clients -- in other words, turning greenwashing into fraud.
We have commented on FTC guidelines previously, but this article highlights several new developments regarding the Green Guides, the FTC's environmental marketing policies:
  • 7 new cases were opened in the last year, out of 42 total since the Green Guides were implemented in 1992.
  • At least two states (CA and IN) have adopted the FTC guidelines as part of their state marketing laws.
  • Other regulatory agencies, such as the SEC, are also getting into environmental issues in their jurisdiction, suggests these agencies are moving an environmental agenda forward while actual legislation languishes in Congress.
Most of these guidelines seem to point towards transparency and full disclosure as key issues, which has always been a key part of our environmental marketing strategies. Creating a transparent framework now makes it easier to add specific information down the road as regulations continue to progress.

Steel Industry Greenwash

The American Iron and Steel Institute and other steel industry groups fill their websites with statements about how much they have reduced their carbon dioxide emissions in recent years, and to brag about the research being done that may result in further reductions. These are notable claims. But they are also useless to the architect or builder trying to make informed decisions about building systems today. What is needed is clear information about the current CO2 emissions.