Time to toughen up the rules on greenwashing
The Federal Trade Commission has an opportunity to change the landscape for climate and environmental claims in corporate advertising.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
“Sustainable,” “green,” “low carbon,” “net zero” — claims of environmental consciousness seem to be everywhere we look, not least when it comes to corporate advertising. But what environmentally friendly sounding language is actually allowed in corporate marketing, and who is ensuring that consumers aren’t being lied to?
That responsibility belongs in large part to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency tasked with protecting consumers from fraudulent business practices. The FTC has the crucial role of defining and curbing consumer fraud in its Green Guides, a set of guidelines meant to “help marketers avoid making environmental marketing claims that are unfair or deceptive.”
But the Green Guides haven’t been updated for a decade, and the field of environmental marketing has changed quite a lot since then. Consumers are more wary than ever of our worsening climate crisis and rampant plastic pollution, so fossil fuel companies keep finding new and sophisticated ways to sell their harmful products beneath a veneer of sustainability. Oil and gas majors are spending billions on advertising to convince the public that they’re making meaningful progress to reduce emissions while they are fighting climate action behind the scenes. And prominent ad and PR agencies are helping them do it, studies and congressional investigations have shown.
Now, advocates want to make sure the FTC’s guidelines are up to the task of cracking down on fossil fuel companies’ deception. As the agency plans for its next revision, an array of environmental groups including the Center for Climate Integrity, Just Zero, Beyond Plastics, The Last Beach Cleanup, Center for Biological Diversity, Amazon Watch, Greenpeace USA, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and many more are voicing their thoughts on where the FTC should step up its game.
“The Green Guides are an opportunity for the FTC to address one of the greatest barriers to climate action: greenwashing and false advertising from the fossil fuel industry,” said Duncan Meisel, executive director for Clean Creatives, a campaign pushing marketing professionals to drop fossil fuel company clients. “Stricter guidance from the FTC would not only help clear the airwaves of this misinformation, but send a warning to advertising agencies that these sorts of misleading claims will be subject to greater regulatory and legal scrutiny.”
Here are just some of the ways advocates are suggesting the FTC can strengthen its guidelines:
Identify and address new forms of deceptive advertising — like “paltering” and “reputation advertising.”
When companies promote cherry-picked truths that misrepresent the full picture of their operations, they’re intentionally deceiving consumers by “paltering.”
“This is what oil and gas companies do in their advertisements,” wrote HEATED’s Emily Atkin in a comprehensive piece on “Big Oil’s favorite way to lie.” “Technically, they tell the truth—they’re investing in greener, cleaner technology. But the investments are small, the technology is unproven, and their companies are overall failing to reduce their emissions. The selective truth they choose is designed to create a false impression, so everyone gets off their back about climate change.”
Shell, for example, labels gas as a “low carbon fuel.” While that’s technically true — burning gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil or coal — that use of paltering distracts from the fact that the massive methane emissions from gas operations cause significantly more harm to the climate in the short-term.
Companies also use misleading environmental claims to sell their brand, rather than a specific product, as environmentally conscious or sustainable — a strategy called “reputation advertising.”
Exxon, for instance, spent millions of dollars on ads touting its research into algae biofuels to convince the public it was making significant investments in climate solutions. In reality, the company’s investments in algae research were miniscule compared to the money they spent on fossil fuels, and Exxon knew the technology needed to harvest algae at scale was “still decades away.” (You can read our full coverage of Exxon’s abandoned algae ruse here.)
“Paltering” and “reputation advertising” are just two of a growing swath of new greenwashing tactics used by Big Oil — and green groups say the FTC needs to define and address them as such.
Toughen up guidelines on deceptive claims about plastics recycling.
Oil and chemical companies have known for decades that most plastic is not actually recyclable — but that hasn’t stopped them from falsely advertising plastic recycling to concerned consumers as a cure to the widespread pollution of plastic waste.
Advocates say companies shouldn’t be allowed to market products as recyclable when there are only a few facilities that will accept them and no end market for the recycled material. “The Commission should not permit ‘qualified statements’ of recyclability on products that have not been widely recyclable in over 30 years,” wrote the Center for Climate Integrity in its comments. (ExxonKnews is a project of CCI.)
Groups also urged the FTC to address misleading imagery like the “chasing arrows” symbol, which falsely suggests plastic products are recyclable even when they’re not. “There are thousands of products labeled with false recyclable labels,” Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, told InsideClimate News.
Additionally, advocates say the Green Guides need to identify the marketing of “advanced recycling” — or the process of burning plastic to create fossil fuels or chemicals, which isn’t actually recycling — as deceptive. (Here’s our recent issue on how the oil and chemical lobby are promoting “advanced recycling” and lying about its role in the “circular economy,” a term used to convince consumers that plastics are being returned to the same production cycle, to assuage public concerns about pollution while in reality they are rapidly expanding plastic production.)
Crack down on phony “net zero” commitments.
As we’ve covered before, oil majors’ “net zero” emissions pledges rely on far-off technology, misleading language, vague timelines, and other loopholes to distract from the companies’ continued use of fossil fuels while allowing them to avoid having to actually achieve their implied emissions reductions. The insufficiency and deceptive nature of oil companies’ “net zero” plans were highlighted in expert testimony to the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee last year and in a major peer-reviewed study that concluded that “accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.”
Yet while more than 700 of the world’s largest companies have claimed “net zero” emissions targets, there is no established standard for these plans. In order to hold these companies accountable, advocates say the Green Guides must develop a common definition for net zero — one that encompasses all direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions from across each company’s entire business, and distinguishes between actual emission reductions and other schemes companies use to offload emissions liability (like carbon offsets, carbon capture, and divestments).
“If you are going to claim ‘net-zero,’ then you must have a plan, it must be evidence based and it must be independently verified,” Leah Qusba, executive director of Action for the Climate Emergency, told Bloomberg.
Groups also asked the FTC to better align the Green Guides with international standards on deceptive advertising, write stricter rules around the marketing of offsets, and discourage the use of “vague and generic environmentally friendly terms” to describe fossil fuels, like “clean,” “sustainable,” “natural,” and “renewable.”
Write new rules with consumer protection in mind.
While the Green Guides themselves do not have a built in enforcement mechanism, they can influence and have been incorporated into several state consumer protection statutes — which are the basis of many of the current climate fraud cases against Big Oil. (Some have predicted that the advertising agencies working on behalf of Big Oil could be implicated in those lawsuits, too.)
The FTC can bring enforcement actions against companies under the FTC Act, using failure to comply with the Green Guides as evidence of a violation — like advocacy groups asked the Commission to do in 2021, when they filed a complaint against Chevron for its misleading ads touting the company’s “climate action.”
Once the FTC reviews all the recommendations for revision — and there are thousands of them — they will submit an updated version of the Green Guides for another round of public review. The FTC also has the opportunity to write new rules for deceptive environmental claims under the FTC Act that would become enforceable under the law.
We will, as always, keep you updated on what comes next.
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