The World Federation of Advertisers recently issued Global Guidance on Environmental Claims, which sets forth six key principles that the WFA believes that marketers should comply with when making green marketing claims.  The guidance was developed with the help of the International Council for Advertising Self-Regulation and The European Advertising Standards Alliance, and with the support of the UK's Advertising Standards Authority.  

In light of the increased attention on the environment, regulators and self-regulators around the world are working on updates to their guidance to marketers about how to properly make environmental marketing claims.  For example, in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has said that it is going to conduct a review of its Green Guides, which are more than a decade old at this point.  As marketers in the United States and elsewhere anxiously await up-to-date guidance, trade associations, such as the WFA, are issuing their own guidance, which may give us some clue about where the rules are headed (particularly when the guidance is developed in partnership with many of the leading advertising self-regulatory organizations). 

Do regulators and self-regulators believe that we need tougher rules on green marketing or do they think that consumers have a better understanding of green marketing claims than they did a decade ago?  Based on the WFA's guidance, it seems that at least some believe that tougher rules are needed and that marketers should scale back some of the claims that they are currently using.  

In issuing the new guidance, Will Gilroy, WFA's Director of Policy and Communications, said, "Ask any sustainability expert how marketing can help solve the problem of climate change and they will tell you to start by getting environmental claims right."

Here's a brief summary of the WFA's principles along with some thoughts about some of the issues that the WFA raised in its description of the new principles. 

Principle One -- "Claims must not be likely to mislead, and the basis for them must be clear."  

The WFA explains that marketers should take into account the overall presentation of marketing communications, including words, symbols, and imagery, as well as information that may be missing.  The WFA also cautions marketers about using environmental signs and symbols in a way that falsely suggests official approval or third party certification.  

The WFA tells marketers to avoid claims such as "environmentally friendly," "sustainable," and "green," saying that they suggest that a product has overall positive impact or no negative impact. The WFA also tells marketers not to make a "carbon neutral" claim that is based on offsetting without explaining the basis for the claim. 

While the FTC (and others) have long raised concerns about whether general environmental benefit claims communicate misleading messages to marketers, the WFA's guidance suggests that these types of claims are still a serious concern.  The WFA also points, in particular, to the use of the term "sustainable," which is widely used by marketers today.  It is worth considering, however, whether, over the last decade, consumers have become better able to evaluate these types of general environmental benefit claims.  Do consumers really think that when a marketer promotes a product made of recycled material as "sustainable" that the product doesn't have any negative impact on the environment at all, or are they able to understand the meaning of "sustainable" in the context in which it is used?  It will be interesting to see whether, as new rules are developed, regulators take into account consumers' experience with, and evolving understanding of, these claims. 

It's also worth noting that the WFA specifically called out the use of "carbon neutral."  The WFA's position here is that marketers shouldn't make an qualified claim that their products or operations are "carbon neutral" if the claim is based on offsetting.  In order to avoid confusion about whether their products are operations are actually carbon neutral, the WFA says that marketers need to explain that the claim is based the purchase of carbon offsets. 

Principle Two -- "Marketers must hold robust evidence for all claims likely to be regarded as as objective and capable of substantiation." 

Most significantly, the guidance says that for aspirational claims, the marketer must "demonstrate that it reasonably has the capacity and methodological approach to achieve such commitments in the specified timeframe."  The WFA also encourages marketers to use independent studies as substantiation, which it says are "likely to be more robust." 

As marketers increasingly make overall corporate commitments to improve their environmental footprint, the WFA reminds marketers that those types of commitments are advertising claims that require reasonable substantiation as well.  What level of certainty is required for these types of aspirational claims, however, is not certain.  It also unclear whether requiring a high level of proof for long-term commitments will discourage marketers from making these commitments or investing in the resources to attempt to achieve them.   

Principle Three -- "Marketing communications must not omit material information.  Where time or space is limited, marketers must use alternative means to make qualifying information readily accessible to the audience and indicate where it can be accessed."  

Examples of things that may be misleading without further qualification, according to the WFA, include claims that refer to compliance with a standard, which do not give the audience enough information to understand the standard, and the use of environmental signs or symbols that do not clearly indicate their source and meaning. 

Many marketers highlight, on their packaging and in their advertising, that they have received certain environmental certifications.  It is not clear whether the WFA is suggesting that marketers should refrain from using those certifications without a clear explanation of what they are based on.  For example, is this suggesting that the use of a "Fair Trade Certified" certification on packaging is no longer acceptable? 

Principle Four -- "Marketers must base general environmental benefit claims on the full lifecycle of their product or business, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the the limits of the lifecycle."  

Here, the WFA is taking the position that marketers shouldn't make unqualified general environmental benefit claims, such as "environmentally friendly," unless the marketer "can demonstrate that the product's entire lifecycle has no detrimental effect on the environment."  

The WFA is setting a high bar for making general environmental benefit claims, since not only are there challenges in conducting a full life cycle analysis, but it's highly unlikely that many products will have no detrimental impact.  

Principle Five -- "Products compared in marketing communications must meet the same needs or be intended for the same purpose.  The basis for comparisons must be clear, and allow the audience to make an informed decision about the products compared."  

Here, the WFA is restating typical comparative advertising principles.  The WFA explains, "Claims should make clear to the audience what is being compared and how the comparison has been made." 

Principle Six - "Marketers must include all information relating to the environmental impact of advertised products that is required by law, regulators or Codes to which they are signatories." 

And finally, the WFA reminds marketers to comply with the law as well as with other commitments that they have made.