A few weeks ago, I wrote about the FTC’s plans to step into the greenwashing debate. Yesterday, the agency held its first workshop aimed at updating its Green Guides, the voluntary environmental advertising guidelines it asks companies to adopt to help them avoid breaking laws about deceptive marketing.
It’s about time. The last time the Green Guides were updated was in 1998. Since then, we have seen a deluge of new green innovations, including carbon offsets, renewable energy certificates, and sustainability claims for everything from soy candles to wooden chest of drawers. Besides yesterday’s workshop devoted to carbon offsets and renewable energy credits, observers expect hearings on a range of green claims, such as what it means for a company or product like bottled water to be carbon neutral. Or what it would take for a dinner plate or shirt made out of plastic derived from corn or sugar to be biodegradable.
The question is, will updating the Green Guides do any good? if you take a look at the cases that the FTC has pursued, you’d be right to be doubtful. In the 1990s, after the first wave of greenwashing and the creation of the Green Guides, the FTC filed a healthy number of cases. But the last time the FTC took on a company was in…2000. Not one case under the Bush Administration, even as green marketing heated up during the past three years.
But even if the FTC doesn’t do anything until there is a change of government, the high profile hearings might have some impact. They may put companies on warning. They may prompt consumer groups or state attorneys general to go after companies. They may even get businesses within industries to point out rivals’ bad practices. Or they may simply make consumers more aware how rampant greenwashing is. We’ll have to wait and see, but at least these runaway eco claims are finally coming under a microscope.
BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.