FTC and Green Guides

Mon Mar 20 2023
Discover how to successfully navigate the complexities of sustainable packaging in a rapidly evolving legislative landscape.
Learning Objectives
  • Discuss at a high level the mission of the FTC
  • Describe the FTC’s Green Guides
  • Summarize the Green Guides review process
  • Utilize the Green Guides online
Access The Green Guides
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There are many different approaches and definitions to sustainability. 

And there are many different recycling and carbon reporting services in the marketplace. 

So, as we try to navigate and make sense of the world of sustainable packaging, we enter into a sort of unregulated or gray area of law, where regulations have not caught up with technology. 

It’s not just packaging—think about artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, dietary supplements—these categories are beholden to evolving legislation.   

Unregulated markets breed new ideas, products, and services, which in turn bring new interpretations that may be false or deceptive. 

False marketing and deception within the marketplace can negatively influence the economy,  which is why in the United States the FTC, or the Federal Trade Commission, provides a level of regulation on how environmental claims can be communicated on packaging. 

Thankfully, the FTC provides you, the packaging professional, with an essential resource called the Green Guides, so you can understand the current parameters, make better decisions, and advance your packaging. 

These Guides are updated over time, and the FTC gives you a voice in impacting the future of sustainability regulation.  

By the end of this short lesson you’re going to be able to:

  • Discuss at a high level the mission of the FTC 
  • Describe the FTC’s Green Guides 
  • Summarize the Green Guides review process 
  • Utilize the Green Guides online

Have you ever seen a package labeled with How2Recycle’s “Store Drop-Off” instructions?1 How about a product that says it’s FSC certified, or made with 100% post-consumer recycled materials, or 100% recyclable?2  

Chances are, you’ve seen this type of labeling on numerous occasions since the global market for green and environmentally friendly packaging is growing at an astonishing rate. In the current landscape, companies aim to develop sustainably packaged products they can advertise as “green.”3 

But what has to happen for a company to be able to add labels like this on a product—surely they can’t just slap a carbon neutral certified claim onto any package?4 There’s a set of standards one has to meet to make these types of claims, right? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.

So, speaking of claims, this is where the FTC comes in. The FTC is an independent agency appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.5 The FTC has been around for a while too—signed into law in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson.6 The mission of this agency is to protect consumers by preventing businesses from becoming unfair, deceptive, and anti-competitive.7 The FTC also enhances the public understanding of the competitive process.

The FTC’s Green Guides are designed to help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims.8 The Green Guides were issued in 1922 and subsequently revised in 1996, 1998, and 2012.8  According to the FTC, the guidance they provide is segmented into three buckets.8

  1. 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
  3. How marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers

It’s important to note that the Green Guides are not independently enforceable. When a marketer makes an environmental claim inconsistent with the Green Guides, the FTC can take formal action; however, the Commission must prove that the challenged claim is also an unfair or deceptive to continue forward.9

So, how does the FTC handle reviewing and revising claims when said claims are constantly changing and evolving? To effectively remain current, the Green Guides have to keep up with developments in both science and consumer perception.10       

Because of this the FTC generally reviews its rules and guidelines at least once every ten years. And the FTC wants you involved. When this review period comes about, they inform the public on their website and ask for input and dialogue. So, you can leave a comment stating your perspective on the use of a certain terminology and advertising, labeling, and packaging. For example, claims like “Recyclable,” “Compostable,” and “Degradable” are all included in the current Green Guides. But do these terms need to be amended or made easier for consumers to understand?

There is also a section on specific claims that have generated a lot of attention over the last few years such as carbon offsets and climate change. You can submit comments here and even browse comments from the general public.13

The current version of the Green Guides can be viewed under Title 16 in the electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR) as seen here.14

In light of recurring negotiations to the Green Guides, it is important for companies and marketers alike to stay on top of the changes and consider how they may impact current business strategies.9 And as a packaging professional, it’s important that when you are making an environmental claim to consult the FTC Green Guides and assess if your claim is appropriate. 

Overall, the FTC Green Guides provide definitions to key terms and examples to ensure fair competition as consumer purchase decisions are influenced by environmental claims.

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