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Federal Trade Commission Shows Green Guides Have Teeth

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As published in Green Lodging News in October, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued revised “Green Guides” that are designed to help marketers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive. The guides apply not only to products such as amenities but also to companies that own and/or operate green lodging establishments. I strongly encourage you to make yourselves aware of the content of the Green Guides and continue to follow their progress and enforcement.

This past week I learned that the FTC approved a final order settling charges that The Sherwin-Williams Co. and PPG Architectural Finishes, LLC made false and unsubstantiated claims that some of their paints contained zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs) after tinting. The case is the first to apply the FTC’s revised Green Guides. According to an article published on the Sustainable Brands website and authored by Albert Cohen, the paint companies marketed certain paints as containing “zero” VOCs. While this statement was true for uncolored “base” paints, it was not true of the paints once they were tinted, and most consumers only purchase tinted paints. The FTC found that marketing the paints as containing zero VOCs was deceptive because this was not a true statement with regard to how the paints were typically used.

In recent years the FTC has also brought several actions related to deceptive recyclability, biodegradability, bamboo, and environmental certification claims as part of its overall effort to ensure that environmental marketing is truthful and substantiated.

Not Agency Rules or Regulations

The Green Guides are not agency rules or regulations. Instead, they describe the types of environmental claims the FTC may or may not find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Under Section 5, the agency can take enforcement action against deceptive claims, which ultimately can lead to Commission orders prohibiting deceptive advertising and marketing and fines if those orders are later violated.

In his recent column in Hotels, Dr. Arthur Weissman, president and CEO, Green Seal, said, “Basically, any claim a hotel makes in its marketing or communications that conveys an environmental benefit or environmental health benefit is covered by the Green Guides. This applies to a claim that a hotel is green or sustainable or to a claim that any part of a hotel’s operation, features or services is green or sustainable. While a product or service used or purchased by the hotel that makes such claims is also covered by the Green Guides, the hotel will not be held responsible unless it asserts these claims as well.

“The changes made in the new Green Guides will have significant effects on how a hotel can market itself,” Weissman adds. “The guidance strongly discourages any general environmental benefit claims. For example, saying a hotel is green or sustainable and then not qualifying this claim with respect to specific features is interpreted as implying that the hotel is sustainable in every respect, which is impossible to prove and therefore misleading. Having a third party bestow this type of general claim does not relieve the hotel of the burden of proof.”

If that does not make you look at every bit of marketing material related to your green property, I don’t know what will.

The FTC has released several business and consumer education resources designed to help users understand the Guides. These include: 1) “Environmental Claims—Summary of Green Guides,” a four-page summary of the changes in the Guides; 2) “The Green Guides,” a video explaining highlights of the changes; 3) a new page on the FTC Business Center, with links to legal documents, the Guides and other “green” content; 4) a Business Center blog post; and 5) related consumer information. Click here to read that 36-page document.

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