An open letter to the FTC

An open letter to the FTC

Note:  Thanks to Brock Landry with Venable, LLP for raising a couple of the questions posed here during his talk at the AHFA’s Sustainability Summit yesterday.

Dear FTC:

First off, on behalf of all Americans, thank you.  I applaud you for your efforts to provide clarity around what constitutes a reasonable green claim and what does not.  And, as the owner of an advertising agency entirely focused in the sustainability space, one that polls consumers on a quarterly basis to better understand their knowledge levels and purchase drivers, I commend you for including consumer polling in your process and going at your clarification through the consumer lens.

64% of the population is searching for greener products, and when we ask Americans, “how do you know whether or not a product is green?” the top two answers are about reading the labels/claims made on the product’s packaging. Yet, only 6% of the population trusts manufacturer motives for making green claims…so they’re in a box of impossibility:  they want green products, they don’t trust manufacturer motives for offering those products, and they feel their best/only resource for making green product purchase decisions is to turn to the copy written by those very manufacturers they don’t trust.

Thus, they’re buying green products with a knot in their stomachs, not sure if they’re being taken advantage of or, which is more often the case, they’re just not buying the products at all.  That’s human nature, after all.  If we don’t understand something/feel unclear/feel uneasy, we just put off the decision and keep doing what we’ve always done.

Thus, by creating stringency and clarity around green claims, you will actually move this market forward, giving consumers the comfort and security they need to actually pull the trigger on the green product purchases they’ve been wanting to make.

So, again, thank you.

And now a few requests:

1) Please provide more clarity around what constitutes a certification. I appreciate that you’re adding a whole section on certification to the Green Guides…but marketers need to better understand what you’ll see as a “certification” vs. a marketing effort or brand.  For instance, UL is clearly a certification/seal of approval/assurance that the product has been through some sort of testing.  But Proctor & Gamble’s Future Friendly advertising campaign is just that:  an advertising campaign.  Possibly a branding effort.  But it’s not a certification.  If P&G puts the “Future Friendly” logo on their products that meet P&G’s stated environmental goals, will this be considered a certification and, therefore, subject to the new guidelines?  Clarify, please.

2) Go the next step with disclosures. Again, I appreciate that you’ve added language requiring disclosure that a product’s manufacturer is a member of a trade association that also happens to offer the certification/registration program the product has been subjected to.  The intention, I believe, is to make it clear to consumers that money has exchanged hands and the manufacturer pays a fee to the organization that certifies the products so the consumer can judge for him/herself whether or not that constitutes a conflict.  So go the next step.  Money exchanges hands if a manufacturer gets a product UL certified, GreenGuard certified, etc.  Make the playing field level and require disclosure there as well. It’s only fair.

3) Offer simple language for everyone to use. My greatest fear is that we’re going to go the way of Truth in Lending and now be required to give consumers a pamphlet full of 5 point type (that will be promptly thrown in the trash) every time we want to make a viable green claim.  This muddies the waters for consumers rather than clearing them up…and, seriously, will require us to create bigger packages and hang tags and run extra pages of ads — pharmaceutical advertising-style — to explain the claims. This, by the way, isn’t exactly an environmentally friendly approach.  Nor is it helpful to the consumer. So let’s agree on a few simple words we can use to make specific, viable claims clear.

Again, thank you on behalf of all Americans.  And on behalf of all green marketers, please address the three areas above. You’ll help us help Americans make truly informed choices.


Suzanne Shelton

President & CEO

Shelton Group

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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