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Jan 092008

By John DeFore

The Federftc-green-logo.gifal Trade Commission met in Washington on Tuesday with the aim of speeding up its efforts to regulate green marketing claims. Motivated largely by the rapid expansion of firms selling carbon-offsets, renewable energy certificates (such as those assuring buyers that they’re investing in new eco-friendly power plants), and the like, the FTC’s main goal is to make sure consumers know exactly what they’re buying.

The FTC and invited experts are looking at items such as airline offers that charge an optional fee to offset the ecological impact of a flight and a credit cards advertising “points” of renewable energy as a reward for each dollar spent.

The current guidelines for businesses, which are summarized online here, were first introduced in 1992 and haven’t been revised since 1998 — long enough ago for plenty of marketing trends to emerge as problem areas. The rules hadn’t been scheduled for revision until next year; market activity prompted a bump up in the time line.

A look at those FTC guidelines suggests why parties from all three factions (consumers, industry, and regulators) might find clarification useful: While the laws explained are high-minded, insisting on substantiation and specificity when it comes to advertising claims, they also sometimes allow for flexible interpretation.

The Commission has tried to arm consumers against loophole-hungry manufacturers with a consumer tip sheet called “Sorting Out ‘Green’ Advertising Claims, which encourages buyers to read and investigate the fine print. But this advisory itself appears due for a freshen up, having been written during the Clinton Administration.

Visitors to the site who are curious to know how the laws are enforced can get a glimpse on the FTC website; selecting “Environment” and then “Enforcement” brings up a list of three dozen cases — curiously, the list ends in May 2000 — in which the agency has pursued companies’ misleading claims.

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