The terms “green” and “environmentally friendly” are common vernacular in the cleaning industry; unfortunately they are often loosely applied and lead to greenwashing. The latest revisions of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guides should put an end to misleading environmental marketing claims. 
“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them,” says FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, in a press release. “But this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated.”
First introduced in 1992 to help marketers avoid making misleading claims, the FTC revised the Green Guides in 1996 and 1998. However, a lot has changed in the last 14 years and the new rules, released in 2012, include new guidelines for environmental claims that were not common in 1998. 
Product manufacturers are updating their marketing materials to comply with the new guidelines. Distributors, too, need to make sure their catalogs, brochures and even sales pitches are up-to-date — or face stiff penalties. Distributors are considered retailers and can be held liable for making false green claims. 

Qualifying Green

The purpose of the 2012 FTC Green Guides is to eliminate greenwashing. The best way to do that is by making product claims as precise as possible. The most notable change to the 2012 Green Guides is that marketers are discouraged from using broad terms such as “green” or “environmentally friendly.” The FTC wants manufacturers and marketers to qualify such vague statements with specific environmental attributes. 
“A term like ‘environmentally friendly’ is inherently deceptive and misleading,” says Arthur Weissman, CEO of Green Seal, Washington, D.C. “The FTC appreciates that all products have some environmental impact. Products can’t be all positive.”
The FTC wants marketers to clearly explain why a product would be considered a better alternative for the environment than other products currently on the market. The Green Guides outline acceptable criteria for a number of environmental claims (see sidebar on pg. 18). 
For example, if distributors promote a product as “free-of” a harmful ingredient, there can’t also be an ingredient in the product that is of equal harm. In addition, a free-of claim can’t be made for an ingredient that has never been associated with the product. 
In accordance to the new Green Guides, these substantiated claims need to be prominently displayed on product labels and marketing materials. 
Broad terms like “green” and “eco-friendly” are so common in the cleaning industry that it will take time to get used to avoiding such vague descriptors. But ultimately, end users will benefit because they will know the exact environmental benefits of a product. 
“This is an opportunity for the cleaning industry to be more specific and really communicate what the environmental benefit of the product, service or operation is,” says Dr. Angela Griffiths, director of research and service delivery at UL Environment, Marietta, Ga.
Distributors who private label their own product lines need to remember that these products are no different than national brands and any promotion of environmental attributes will need to adhere to FTC guidelines. 
The revised Green Guides apply to more than just products and packaging; they also dictate how distributors can promote their own operations. Many jan/san distributors have been embracing environmental initiatives at their own facilities. When promoting these practices, distributors need to follow the Green Guides or face the consequences. 
“Promoting these [green efforts] can be good for business, but with new levels of scrutiny and customer relationships in the balance, backing environmental claims up with proof and added clarity is wise,” says Griffiths.
While the Green Guides ask for specificity with environmental claims, it does not define “sustainability.” The FTC lacked guidance or accurate use of the term, according to a press release.