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Did The US Federal Trade Commission just ban the words: "carbon offset", "compostable", "recyclable" and "biodegradable"

Did you hear the story about the company making compostable, biodegradable, non-toxic plastic-neutral products being given the seal of approval over its net zero offsets as part of a regenerative strategy?

Let’s hope not. Because that paragraph was littered with words increasingly being marked out as greenwashing no-nos.

The US Federal Trade Commission published guidance on the use of environmental marketing claims at the end of last year. While not law, they’re legally enforceable - whatever that means in practice. More importantly for many readers of this, the European Union is likely to follow a similar path.

This piece in Greenbiz covers the FTC’s rationale, and gives examples of companies and sectors that may have to rethink some of the language being used.

Words that the commission cautions against are:

  • Carbon offset
  • Certified by/seal of approval by
  • Compostable
  • Degradable/biodegradable
  • Free of
  • Less waste than/less toxic than
  • Made with renewable energy/materials
  • Non-toxic
  • Ozone-safe/friendly
  • Recyclable
  • Recycled content
  • Refillable

Others to think more than twice about are apparently ‘clean’, ‘conscious’, ‘low carbon’, ‘net zero’, ‘plastic neutral’ and ‘regenerative’. Which rather muddles things for purveyors of cleaning products, or indeed any business that has made any form of net zero commitment, whichever way it plans to measure that.

The focus of the guidance, and the expectations it aims to set, is on how products are marketed. But it surely also looks to set the tone for how brands communicate their purpose, and how businesses share their ESG goals and achievements.

For storytellers weaned on superlatives, having to take a more rational and less emotional approach to wording is unlikely to sit easy. Nor is the presentation of parallel science-based evidence to qualify the rhetoric. And yet as regulators and standards-setters seek to run the rule over anything that overstates the truth or is outright misleading, any juxtaposition of plain facts with floral prose or euphemisms is also going to need more scrutiny, and likely become subject to more scepticism.

For some years now, communicators working on ESG reports and campaigns have been advocates for “telling it as it is” and sharing the plain facts on action being taken. That has doubtless increased the level of plain talk regardless of external guidance.

But can individual words ever bring down a piece of communication for trying to mislead readers, if the overall piece is a fair and accurate reflection of events or achievements? It seems it all comes down not to the inferred meaning of the words, but whether communicators can point to clear and provable scientific evidence of any claims that those words maintain or imply.

Greenwashing is surely about obfuscation or avoidance of the truth, and inability or unwillingness to assert the validity of claims, rather than specific words being on any kind of sh^tlist.

Even so, laying direct claim to certain words or phrases in relation to any form of transformative strategy or goal-setting should surely be contemplated with even more caution in the future.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

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