The rising popularity of all things green—from homes to cleaning products to paper towels—has brought an onslaught of greenwashing and misleading claims. Government officials and private citizens are cracking down, and those involved in green building, both manufacturers and pros, should use caution when marketing their products and services, according to a panel during the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas last week.

Lawsuits based on green marketing are typically coming from three areas: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer who is not satisfied that your product meets its claims and sues you for breach of contract, or a competitor who accuses you of false advertising.
 
Among the current lawsuit examples provided by Patrick Perrone and Loly Tor of K&L Gates in Newark, N.J., was Fiji water, whose slogan “Every drop is green” has been charged with being a misrepresentation because the product is shipped long distances. SC Johnson was sued for a “Greenlist” logo on its Windex products: The logo, described as a rating system for use of responsible ingredients, appeared to be a third-party emblem when in fact it is an internally created branding.
 
This example is key to understanding one of the ways the FTC evaluates marketing: by looking at it from a consumer’s point of view. In other words, what would a consumer reasonably believe your advertising claims mean?

“Any of you involved in marketing green products or buildings should be familiar with the FTC’s Green Guides,” advised Perrone. The government agency uses the recently released Green Guides to determine if marketers are engaging in false advertising, but it is also a helpful tool for pros to understand how to properly promote green products or homes.
 
In addition to consulting the Green Guides, Perrone offered the following recommendations to ensure your claims aren’t misleading:

  1. Substantiate all green claims with comparable and reliable evidence. “If you can’t prove it’s true, then you shouldn’t be making those claims,” Perrone advised. Consumer health and safety is particularly hard to prove. Reference reputable third-party certifications.

  2. Environmental claims should be specific. For example, for a green product, does the claim refer to the product, the packaging, or both?

  3. Avoid broad and vague environmental claims such as “environmentally friendly” or “healthy.” Ask yourself, what does it really mean? Avoid these types of descriptions unless you qualify it, such as “This product/home is environmentally friendly because…” 

  4. Don’t make comparative environmental claims without identifying the basis of comparison. 

  5.  Don’t make “exaggerated feature” claims or overstate the attributes or benefits. This includes over-hyping the green attributes of the product while ignoring the eco-negatives.

For additional counsel, there are a growing number of legal experts focusing on and specializing in environmental marketing claims.

No matter what, don’t assume that you’re immune from scrutiny if you’re simply passing on others’ marketing information: Keep the guidelines in mind not only for the homes you sell, but for the green products you specify. Research manufacturers’ claims and ensure they also are following guidelines for third-party certification and substantiation.

“You as the builder are the first target,” Perrone warned.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor of EcoHome.