By Margaret Fisher



Do’s and Don’ts for making environmental claims or statements.

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Read Margaret's archived articles about LEED below:

Taking the LEED

Wood: The ‘Alpha Material’

 

These days, you can hardly turn a corner or a page without running into talk about something that’s “environmentally friendly” or “green” or “sustainable.” Unfortunately, this highly visible and fast-growing trend is subject to being easily abused. You don’t have to look far to find marketing claims, ads, product literature, labels or tags that are bogus. With the help of the internet, reports of false claims can spread fast and deep and, when the truth ultimately gets out, it causes the shadow of suspicion to fall on everyone.

To this point, a recent poll showed that fewer than one in seven consumers believe the environmental claims they hear. Forty percent of consumers believe all corporate claims “are scams.” So, despite your sincere efforts to be honest and forthright about your company’s practices or products, they may be put under the microscope.

It is in your best interest (and the wood industry’s best interest) to be proactive about this. It is not enough to make an environmental statement or claim, you must also be prepared to back up that claim with proof. For example, if your company participates in LEED projects, you may be asked to provide your company’s own environmental statement. What should you write? Some people say, “You can say anything, there is no one policing it!” But I say, as a warning, “Not true” and “Be careful.”

Defining Terms

First of all, let’s discuss the difference between a “green” product and a “LEED” product. Besides green being a color, the term “green” when referring to environmental tidbits is a broad, general term. It’s like saying there is “cold” weather; it is a relative term that can mean anything, but generally, we are talking about weather that is not “hot.”

“Green,” in the case of building materials, means they hold a different value from a traditional building material, in that they may have properties or characteristics that specifically make them more of a sustainable material, for instance, things that are reused, recycled, etc. On the other hand, if someone asks for a “LEED material,” technically, there are none. That is because the only thing that gets a LEED rating is a building. There are no LEED carpets, flooring, paints, glues, finishes, etc. There are only materials that comply with criteria that are designated in LEED building credit guidelines. Your suppliers can tell you which of the materials they provide have qualities or properties or are made by processes that are suggested as being acceptable to help earn LEED credits.

When it comes to making claims about product “greenness,” the Federal Trade Commission is pretty clear on what you can say and how you need to comply with its regulations. These decisions are put into place to: 1) protect consumers from purchasing materials and products with fraudulent claims about how a product is good for the environment; and 2) protect companies which are truly committed to producing products that are actually helping the environment.

Here are some guidelines culled from the FTC rules to help you understand how to formulate a substantiated, qualified environmental claim or statement:

• Avoid broad language, such as “environmentally safe,” “source reduction,” “eco-smart” or “virtually nontoxic” that can convey to consumers a wide range of interpretations that can be difficult to substantiate.



• Claims such as “environmentally preferable” need to be specifically qualified as to how or why they are. If the product is not superior in all its respects, the wrong meaning could be conveyed. Ask yourself, “Does this help a consumer make an intelligent, informed decision?”



• Marketing that misguides consumers or is deceptive in order to influence a buyer to purchase one thing over another, based on its environmental claim, is not allowed.



• Claims and statements must be able to be proven with sound scientific research and data.

The FTC regulation encompasses company, product, service or packaging claims regarding the environment included in labeling, advertising, promotional materials and all other forms of marketing, whether asserted directly or by implication, through words, symbols, emblems, logos, depictions, product brand names or through any other means, including marketing through digital or electronic means, internet or e-mails. They apply to sellers and buyers of products and services for personal, family, household, institutional, commercial or industrial use.

This is just a quick overview. The FTC goes into great detail and gives many useful examples of what is considered to be deceptive or not deceptive in its official document, Guide for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. It can be downloaded at www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm.

Investigation and Penalties

If an environmental claim or statement falls under suspicion, the FTC will ask for background information about how the claim was developed and ask for the scientific findings that prove the claim. These will be studied to determine whether the science is sound and the product or packaging is, in fact, consistent with it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Further study will be done to determine if the claim is consistent with the product or package as a whole or if, in fact, it distracts the buyer from other important information that may not be consistent with the environmental statement.

A common example of this is marketing bamboo as a good environmental choice, because this grass is used in place of wood/trees. On the surface, this may seem like a good option. But further discussion may reveal that the bamboo plantation is growing on land that was previously a forest which was clear-cut and burned to make room for this new highly-lucrative crop. Both pieces of information would have to be clear to consumers.

What is the penalty for an infraction? Let’s say that upon review, a company making a wrong claim acknowledges an understanding of the fault. It is not fined, but may be given a chance to produce a new correct and qualifiable statement.

When the FTC issues a consent order on a final basis, it does carry the force of law with respect to further actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $10,000 per violation per day, which can also be imposed for a knowing violation, regardless of a previous cease-and-desist order. Additional ramifications can include backlash from consumers and environmental groups or even third-party lawsuits.

Keep all this in mind when you write your firm’s environmental statement. Be proud of the measures your company and your staff are taking to use resources wisely and treat the earth gently.

Some of the key elements that can be included are: Air emissions from your plant and processes; water use/pollution abatement; hazardous waste disposal measures; reduced amount of waste sent to a landfill; energy sources and energy consumption; greenhouse gases emitted (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, sulfur hexafluoride, dichlorodifluoromethane, triclorofluoromethane, ozone); improvements made since being cited for any EPA violations, as well as anything else general you are doing, like carpooling, recycling, community cleanups, etc.

Your company’s environmental goals reflect your true commitment to the environment. Be sure to write them down accurately, relay them with consistency and back them up with science and data to avoid any backlash.

Margaret Fisher is Market Development Manager of Saunders Wood Specialties in Park Falls, WI, and serves as the AWI (Architectural Woodwork Institute) liaison to the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council).

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