Green Labeling Regs get Tough

June 25, 2008, Canada’s Federal Government announced new regulations for the labeling of goods making environmental or sustainability claims. As many products and companies are stampeding to the Green Frontier with nothing more eco-friendly than their slogans, we at Green Briefs took a closer look at the 63-page PDF document entitled ‘Environmental claims: A guide for industry and advertisers’. The new rules are drawn from the International Standards Organization’s policy on self-declared environmental claims. (Remember, the people who brought you the inspiringly entitled ‘ISO 14000’ Standards? Yawn.) The first thing I noticed is that the whole document is boldly labeled ‘DRAFT’. Was this a clerical error? Could Canada’s New Government possibly be guilty of Premature Announcement Release? So it would appear. I perused the document and soon found even more weasel-words:

“This guide should not be construed as regulation but will be referenced by the Competition Bureau as a first step when assessing environmental claims.”

Thank goodness. By the time anyone in Ottawa gets finished plowing through this tome, I’ll be long gone with my ill-gotten green booty. But, just in case they someday want to make an example of one of us, let’s look at a few of the nitty-green-gritties.

100% Carbon-Free A simple search for the word ‘Carbon’ produced zero results in the document. That’s right. Zero. I did it twice just to make sure. Sixty-three pages of the best environmental labeling regulations money can buy, and the planet’s biggest eco-disaster is completely ignored. Is this the Harper government’s idea of censorship by omission of emissions? Was the editor from Calgary? Whatever the reason, it makes it hard to take the rest of the document too seriously.

Nothing-friendly The document does attempt to lay waste to the common practice of green generalization. Terms like ‘Earth-friendly’ and ‘Planet-Friendly’ are to be eschewed in favour of more specific claims. (Note that according to recent research, the term ‘Eco-Friendly’ is recognized by  89% of consumers. Doh!) The regs also tread into some interesting territory life-cycle-wise. Take clause 5.7H for instance: “…Environmental claims… shall be true not only in relation to the final product but also shall take into consideration all relevant aspects of the product life cycle in order to identify the potential for one impact to be increased in the process of decreasing another.” More simply put (as I interpret it, at least), if the recycling process of a product takes more energy than manufacturing, a claim of energy savings from recycling cannot be made. A real stickler might even take Toyota to task for the amount of carbon created with the manufacture of the batteries at the heart of the Prius Hybrid. According to some calculations, manufacturing these batteries creates more carbon than the cars themselves could ever save. Smug eco-yuppies beware.

The basic premise regarding specific claims: PROVE IT. There are whole sections, sub-sections and paragraphs, duly labeled for those types who enjoy reading lengthy software license agreements, covering what is considered compostable, degradable, disassemblable, reusable, refillable, recyclable, promises longer life, energy savings, water savings or waste reduction. But it mostly comes down to this: You can’t say it without proving it’s true. Preferably using a third-party verified process. And no more burying the dirty details in the mice type. “If a carton has a claim on the front panel that requires an explanatory statement, the explanatory statement may not be on the side or back of the package, even with an asterisk to guide the reader to the other location. The statement must be with the claim.” That’s going to make for some sweet packaging design. The rotting mouths and death warnings of cigarette packages will look positively luxurious by comparison.

Kiss the green leaf goodbye. One of the most interesting stipulations in these guidelines is the prohibition on the use of natural elements in symbols: “Natural objects shall be used only if there is a direct and verifiable link between the object and the benefit claimed.” Thus a symbol of the ubiquitous leaf cannot be used alongside ‘earth-friendly’. (A term you’re not supposed to use anyhow) This is great news for graphic designers, as about 75% of these symbols will now have to be re-designed.

So when will we all get to go to the first hanging? Don’t hold your breath. Under the puffed chests of this announcement lies this simple statement, from the competition bureau’s web site:

“…businesses are free to adopt any business practice they so choose, as long as the claims they are making are not false or misleading. Therefore, while the Competition Bureau will use this Guide as a reference for evaluating environmental claims, deviations from the Guide might not, in and of themselves, represent a contravention of the Competition Act and/or the labeling statutes enforced by the Competition Bureau. Environmental claims that raise concerns under these statutes may be examined on a case-by-case basis…”

Sounds like business as usual. But as marketers, we can all learn from the new guidelines and make the marketplace a more genuine shade of green.

Previous: «
Next: »