Unsubstantiated “green” marketing claims have been the target of many FTC investigations and actions recently. As environmental and green claims have become the crux of so many companies’ marketing platforms, the FTC has shifted focus to protecting consumers interested in supporting and purchasing environmentally sound and sustainable products.
However, the FTC’s main rule–that advertising claims cannot be false or misleading–often leads to more questions than answers. In a past article [link to 9/14 article], I described some of the guidance the FTC has promulgated regarding environmental marketing claims. Obviously, there’s a lot lacking in the FTC’s guidance (the FTC plans to issue new guidance soon, which is expected to include use of claims such as “sustainable,” “renewable”’ and “carbon-neutral”). Add another topic to the list—use of “bamboo” for textiles, not to mention “organic cotton” and others.
Despite the imminence of the FTC’s guidance, we are likely to see more enforcement in this area as environmental claims become more and more important to consumers and retailers. Last week, for example, the FTC provided warning letters to 78 national retailers regarding their labeling of textiles products as bamboo. As it turns out, bamboo’s cellulose can be used to make rayon. Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber produced, in part, with natural polymers. However, it also contains synthetics and is not generally considered a “green” product due to its manufacturing process. New guidance to retailers from the FTC says that these products may be labeled as “rayon from bamboo.” Inferring from the FTC’s recent letters and decisions on the matter, retailers that sell textiles that are labeled as “rayon from bamboo” should not be combining this description with any other green claims about the products.
In addition to the potential $16,000/violation penalty for retailers that fail to correct their labels and advertising, retailers warned by the FTC for things such as labeling textiles as “eco-bamboo” suffer from consumer disappointment and blows to reputation.
An excerpt from an FTC consumer alert on the subject sums it up:
“Looking to be a more environmentally conscious shopper? You’ve probably heard about bamboo. Bamboo stands out for its ability to grow quickly with little or no need for pesticides, and it is used in a variety of products, from flooring to furniture. But when it comes to soft bamboo textiles, like shirts or sheets, there’s a catch: they’re actually rayon. The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft “bamboo” fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.”
In managing these issues, retailers should be sure to include protections in their purchase orders with suppliers and take the utmost care in analyzing not only the content of fabrics and products, but also the manufacturing process before making any green claims. All claims must be substantiated by reliable evidence, like scientific test and analyses. Until more guidance is available from the FTC, retailers and others should probably be overly-cautious about environmental claims they make.