In a landmark move to reduce consumer confusion over environmental labeling of products ranging from diapers to trash bags, the Federal Trade Commission released yesterday the first national guidelines for companies to follow.
The move marks the broadest effort to date to end disputes among environmentalists, consumer groups and corporations over the meaning of such terms as "recyclable," "biodegradable" and "ozone friendly."
In recent years, the use of "green marketing" techniques has expanded amid controversy over the accuracy of manufacturers' claims. Authorities have prosecuted producers of hair sprays, diapers, trash bags and other goods under consumer-fraud laws.
Many manufacturers have become wary of using environmental claims -- no matter how legitimate -- for their products, because no uniform standards are widely honored by environmentalists, consumer advocates and other critics.
Meanwhile, consumers have become skeptical of most environmental claims.
Business representatives expect the FTC guidelines to spark a new, but more credible, round of environmental marketing claims because companies that comply with the FTC guidelines will be considered safe from FTC -- and probably most state -- truth-in-advertising laws.
The FTC's guidelines for some of the controversial terms include:
* "Recycled content": An advertiser should be able to prove, and quantify, the amount of material that has been kept from a landfill or retrieved as manufacturing scraps. Unqualified claims can be made only when the entire product or package -- excluding "minor, incidental components" -- is made of recycled material.
* "Recyclable": This should be used only if the product or package can be reused as raw material in making a new product or package.
* "Ozone-safe" and "ozone-friendly": These should not be used if the product has any ozone-depleting chemical. Claims that a product has reduced ozone-depleting potential must be substantiated.
* "Degradable," "biodegradable" and "photode gradable": These
should mean that the product will "decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal." Otherwise, the claim must be qualified, as with products that might degrade quickly in open air but not in landfills, where they commonly end up.
The FTC standards elicited rare unanimity among business, consumer and environmental groups.
"We're very pleased," said Melinda Sweet, director of environmental affairs for Lever Brothers Co., and a longtime proponent of national standards.
Also supportive are some of industry's toughest critics.
"This is a real victory for business and consumers," said Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, head of a group of state attorneys general that has been suing companies under state consumer-fraud laws, contending that their environmental claims could not be supported.
Using state laws covering deceptive advertising and consumer fraud, the officials have forced the maker of Bunnies diapers to stop claiming that they are biodegradable, Mobil Chemical Corp. from making a similar claim for its Hefty trash bags and Alberto-Culver Co. from claiming that its hair-care products were "ozone-friendly."
Environmentalists eventually want terms such as "recycled" to be restricted to products containing specific minimum percentages of recycled material.
"Use of environmental marketing terms is not a right; it is a reward for those who take that extra step to make environmentally beneficial products," said Lisa Collaton, a policy analyst with the Environmental Action Foundation.