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USGNN Original StoryBuilding Industry Weighs in: How the FTC Can Combat Green Claims

When members of the building industry met on Tuesday as part of a public workshop hosted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine green claims in the building and textiles industry, one fact was certain: many companies are making general claims with no basis behind them. The workshop was really about the exchange of ideas to see what the FTC can do to combat this problem. It’s not an easy task.

The workshop was part of the FTC’s review of its environmental marketing guidelines, also known as the "Green Guides.” This was the third public workshop to examine developments in environmental claims for building products, buildings and textiles, along with consumer perceptions of those claims. The goal of the workshop, according to the FTC, was to provide an opportunity for interested parties to study green textile and building claims. Discussion topics included: consumer perceptions of environmental claims for building and textile products; the state of substantiation for green building and textile claims; and the need for additional or updated FTC guidance in these areas.

In many of the sessions some similar themes were voiced by the panelists: how to fit single attributes of a product into a whole system, such as a home or a building; the issue of metrics--how do you gauge and measure what a label says, and how do you compare the different programs in the marketplace; and how the industry can implement life cycle analysis in place of the broad sweeping claims that are made currently.

Different Programs/Different Viewpoints
In one of the sessions, Overview of Green Claims for Building Products, Corey Brinkema of the Forest Stewardship Council and Rick L. Cantrell of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative gave an overview of their programs. Cantrell brought up the topic of life-cycle analysis, a frequent theme throughout the workshop.

“We believe in life-cycle analysis and the value that it can bring,” he said.

 Other panelists in this session such as Kirsten Ritchie from Gensler, talked about another area the FTC needs to look into.

"... The area we're concerned about is the fluffy words. It's the environmentally friendly or the eco-safe or the great green or clean air—I like that one—those kinds of claims that clearly, you know, there's no basis behind them,” said Ritchie.

In another session, representatives of the different green building programs had their chance to give an overview of their programs. The session, Framing It Up — Consumer Protection Issues Regarding Green Building Certifications included the following panelists: Michelle Moore, U.S. Green Building Council; Erin Shaffer, Green Building Initiative; Carlos Martín, National Association of Home Builders and Sam Rashkin, Environmental Protection Agency.

“Much guidance is needed on green building claims … to substantiate benefits and performance claims,” said Martin.

Moderator of the session, Robin Rosen Spector, Division of Enforcement, FTC, asked the panelists what specific things they would like to see in the updated green guides.

Rashkin said the challenge for the FTC comes down to metrics and how to gauge whether a label meets the criteria defined on the label. He also mentioned how it is difficult to compare the different systems.

“In one system, ten points means a lot while in another it means very little,” he said, as an example of the variances between programs. “The best thing the FTC can do is provide guidance on the different green labels.”

What may have been the most interesting and valuable session of the day was the closing session, Roundtable on Consumer Protection Challenges and the Need for FTC Guidance. Panelists included Allen Blakey, Vinyl Institute; Christine Chase, Green Seal; John Girman, Environmental Protection Agency; Sophia Greenbaum, Sustainable Buildings Industry Council; Thomas R. Reardon, The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association; and John Spears, Sustainable Design Group.

Again, the topic of metrics and tying different components into a finished system was discussed.

“When a consumer buys a home, they buy a system. When they go to Home Depot they buy a component. There has to be a way to differentiate this,” said Reardon.

The panelists agreed that the FTC can help consumers by providing much needed education.

“Consumers are very gullible so education is needed,” said one panelist. Again, this includes education on the various green building programs available.

“When you’re shopping for energy efficiency, here are some standards and labels to look for on products and buildings. That’s about the best you can do,” said another panelist.

While the speakers agreed that companies are making outrageous claims when it comes to green, session Moderator James Kohm, Associate Director, Division of Enforcement, asked the panelists: What are the one or two most important things the FTC can do to help with this issue?

  • Opinions don’t count. We need data,” said Blakey. “Eliminate broad sweeping claims and offer life cycle data.”
  • Substantiation,” said Chase.
  • “People need to know that all certification programs are not created equal,” said Spears.
The FTC is accepting comments for revisions to the green guides until August 15. Go to http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm to view the current copy of the guides.

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