- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Attention companies jumping on the “green” bandwagon: If you claim you’re Earth-friendly, you may soon need to prove it.

The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing restrictions on environmental marketing claims a year earlier than expected to crack down on false advertising.

“A lot of negative connotations have been swirling around about green,” says Ann Mack, the director of trend spotting at the New York-based ad agency JWT, noting the crackdown. “And a lot of companies have hijacked the green messaging with people so confused that they don’t know who or what to believe. The FTC is definitely clamping down on the practice and putting the onus on the brand manager to prove the claims that they are putting out there.”

An FTC forum on the issue was held in January and the next meeting is set for April, with new — and tougher — guidelines for marketers and advertisers expected by the end of the year.

Trade groups, including the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the American Advertising Federation, are concerned about the new guidelines known as “Green Guides” and have filed comments to the FTC. The groups argue that broad-scale changes to the guidelines would harm their industries.

Filing deadlines for comments are set for May 19. The FTC last revised the guidelines in 1998.

Widespread changes to the guidelines “would be impractical, if not impossible to implement, and could have a chilling effect on an advertiser’s ability to communicate important and valuable information to consumers,” said Ron Urbach, a marketing and communications attorney with the New York firm Davis & Gilbert, who counsels clients on green initiatives, in written comments to the FTC.

For Kevin Tuerff, president of EnviroMedia Social Marketing in Austin, Texas, broader FTC guidelines, and some serious enforcement, couldn’t come soon enough.

“What we see is that there is a great abuse of green marketing out there,” says Mr. Tuerff, who started his company 11 years ago and is one of the earliest environmental marketing firms. “There is a real lack of authenticity to a lot of the ads that is really disingenuous with the problem we have in the environment. A lot of people are green-washing.”

To uncover the biggest offenders, his company has partnered with journalism students and professors at the University of Oregon to create a watchdog Web site, www. greenwashingindex.com, where consumers can report ad abuses and post the offending ad spots online. There, the environmental claims are scrutinized.

“You can judge whether or not they are exaggerating their claims or masking,” Mr. Tuerff says of the interactive site. “The response we’ve had has really taken off.”

Mr. Tuerff says regulations on environmental marketing would help, much the same way the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling of organic foods has changed consumer confidence in those products.

“Ad groups are asking the FTC to slow down,” he says. “We’re encouraging the FTC to hurry up. As a company, we are in support of either the industry stepping up and self-regulating or the FTC stepping in to take some actions. What’s happening is that consumers have jumped ahead of business, so businesses are rushing in to marketing without really thinking through these very difficult and delicate issues that have political and economic ramifications and social impacts.”

As the FTC wrestles with the green advertising explosion, small businesses along with corporate giants are using more environmentally sound practices in hopes of reducing their “carbon footprints.”

The looming threat of climate change gained a stage a la Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning climate crisis film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which continues to be shown across the nation to motivate, if not frighten, some into consumer environmental engagement.

While some scientists have debunked the movie’s claims, the greening of America has become corporate mantra.

Hotel chains are swapping electricity-hogging light bulbs in favor of new energy-saving brands, and automotive companies, from gas-friendly Honda to luxury-class Mercedes, have started environmental programs designed to merge performance with activism and global stewardship.

Those companies not environmentally engaged may lose a consumer base, research shows.

A 2007 Cone Consumer Environmental survey found that 91 percent of consumers form a positive image of a company that showcases its environmental responsibility, while 85 percent said they would switch brands or product affiliation “because of a company’s negative corporate responsibility practices.”

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