AHPA event speaker Jake Hebert dove into the FTC’s upcoming shakeup of the Green Guides and the search for truthful sustainability claims.
Oh what a difference a decade makes, especially when it comes to sustainability. Climate change awareness has more consumers buying sustainable products. But even more significantly, science and technology have advanced the sustainability of CPG products themselves. Despite this progress, there’s a disconnect happening, one that many consumers don’t realize. The fact is that just because a company has built a product that could be more sustainable, whether the product ends up being eco-friendlier at the end of the day is oftentimes uncertain. Now, the agency in charge of overseeing marketing practices in the U.S. is stepping in to tighten guidelines around sustainability marketing. The Federal Trade Commission announced in December 2022 that it will revise its Green Guides once again. The Guides, first issued in 1992, outline “how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate these claims to avoid deceiving consumers,” FTC states. But the Green Guides have not been revised since 2012, and in that time, the sustainability landscape, as well as consumer perceptions of sustainability claims, have changed considerably.
At the American Herbal Products Association’s (Silver Spring, MD) May 16 AHPA Botanical Congress virtual event, guest speaker Jake Hebert, packaging collaborative director at One Step Closer, a nonprofit dedicated to driving change in zero-waste packaging and climate change, discussed some of the key issues at the heart of potential revisions to the Green Guides. The presentation, part of a session titled “The Label: Hitting the Truth on Natural Product Claims,” was timely as the June 13 deadline for the public to submit comments to FTC about suggested changes to the Green Guides quickly approaches.
“The goal, of course, of these Green Guides,” Hebert noted, “is to prevent greenwashing and make sure we have a level playing field with our marketing claims.” Further, he added, “a large majority of Americans are concerned about the environmental impact of the products that they buy, and they use environmental claims as an important factor when making purchasing decisions. So we certainly want to make sure that these claims that are being made are not misleading.”
As part of its revision process, FTC will be evaluating definitions of words currently being used in sustainability claims and what those should really mean, considering what today’s end-use scenarios actually are.
“Recyclable” claims will be one of the main focuses of FTC’s revision. “Currently, the FTC allows you to make unqualified claims about being recyclable if sufficient access to collection exists, and they define that as being 60% of the state or country,” Hebert explained. “What this doesn’t account for, though, is if something is actually recycled. If a product is recyclable in theory, is it really recycled? Is it really recyclable if it’s not being turned into something else? The average consumer certainly thinks that a product, a plastic package that’s being put into the recycling bin, if it’s being collected, is being turned into another product, when we know that’s generally not the case. Typically, recyclers can turn #1, #2, and #4 plastics into other consumer products. But that’s really being done at a small scale in the U.S. right now.”
In actuality, he said, estimates suggest that less than 10% of plastics in the U.S. are actually recycled. “And so one of the big topics right now is should a plastic have to be recycled, and should there be something to substantiate that it’s going through that system in order to call it ‘recyclable,’” he said. “I think that will play out as being the area that’s most heavily debated as part of this current revision of the Green Guides.”
Another focal point will be postconsumer versus postindustrial content, he said, where postconsumer packaging refers to packaging materials that are actively being collected and turned into other products, while postindustrial refers to what companies achieve by closing loops in their manufacturing processes. As Herbert pointed out, companies are already putting postindustrial practices into place, “so should a company be able to claim that as an environmental benefit if it’s part of their process already?”
Compostable will be another term under the microscope, with debate around the “inconsistent access to composting nationally,” he said, as well as debate over the differences between home-composting versus industrial-composting.
Degradable is another term evoking lots of debate. As Hebert noted, “For products customarily disposed of in a landfill, the Guides currently allow for unqualified claims if these things can break down in a reasonably short period of time, which is defined as one year. But there are a lot of challenges with these types of claims. For one, biodegradable, degradable, oxo-degradable—they don’t specify a time a time period or an environment in which this degradation is likely to occur, again making them very misleading. A lot of consumers see degradable or biodegradable, and they think compostable, and these are very different things.”
And, finally, when it comes to the word sustainable itself, what does that really mean? During the last revision of the Green Guides, FTC had said there wasn’t enough information at the time to officially define the term. But “the door is really open right now for the FTC and for other people who are making comments to step up and help define this word and to define the scope in which it can be used,” Hebert said. This would also extend to evaluating claims made about use of renewable energy and life cycle analyses.
The bottom line is that it’s highly likely that these marketing terms “will be restricted more and more going forward, certainly as it relates to packaging,” Hebert said. Stakeholders who need to make their voices heard should certainly submit their comments to FTC now.