Be careful what you claim: Congress debates standard measures of "green"

I’ve watched with no small fascination the news about how General Mills is being taken to task by the Food and Drug Administration for the claims about health benefits it makes on its Cheerios packaging.

If the cereal were any less successful, I’m sure it wouldn’t be subjected to the same scrutiny, but the situation is a great illustration of how careful businesses need to be about the terms, phrases and statements they make to promote certain products.

The discussion is especially timely as more consumers and business to business buyers try to sort through the myriad ways that different organizations use to describe the greenness of their products or services.

In the IT segment alone, you’ve got the various Energy Star certifications, plus the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). Just this week, the Better Business Bureau weighed in with some thoughts about how to use EPEAT information in advertising, when it was asked to comment on a dispute between Dell and Apple. More broadly, you’ve got the EnergyGuide, U.S.D.A. Organic, plus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense and Design for the Environment logo programs.

Supposedly there are more than 300 different green or sustainable labeling programs in existence today. Heck, I’m confused and I cover this stuff regularly.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my mystification. On June 9, the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Federal Protection held a hearing to explore the following thesis: “It’s Too Easy Being Green: Defining Fair Green Marketing Practices.” Under discussion is the potential creation of a nation-wide green council that could police the various programs covering food, technology, building practices and so on. The European Union, as an example, has been moving in this direction.

Here’s a link to the various presentations and statements that were given during the hearing.

Among some of the recommendations made by one of the speakers (Scot Case, vice president of the TerraChoice group and executive Director of the EcoLogo program):

•    The Federal Trade Commission should require that every environmental claim made in marketing materials, advertising, brochures, press releases, labels and so forth be backed by a third-party verification of the claim. Fines should be created to enforce this.
•    The EPA should form an office to create a single national label to recognize environmental leadership. Some existing labels could be folded in under this label and the use of this label would be voluntary.
•    The government should fund the EPA and the National Academies to create a national lifecycle inventory that could be used in granting environmental performance assessments.

Will you be subjected in the future to some onerous environmental labeling rules?

Your marketing team should be aware that the debate over greenwashing (the practice of using hyperbole to promote your product or service in green or environmental terms that are larger than life is going to be elevated out of the press and into the governmental realm with where it might have a very real impact on what you can or cannot claim.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com