The paint was hardly dry and the pixels hardly dissolved on the FTC’s revised Green Guides, before the Commission announced two green marketing settlements. Several paint companies had been marketing their paints as “free of” volatile organic compounds or VOCs as those of us who were organic chemistry majors like to call them. Eliminating VOCs can be a good thing — they easily evaporate at room temperature and according to the Commission can sometimes be potentially harmful to health and the environment. The problem was that only the base paint was free of VOCs, tinting the paint (which most of us do) adds VOCs to the final product and the FTC alleges that consumers would have understood the claim to have applied to the final product and not just the base paint.
The settlement presents the companies with several options. They can continue to make the claim for products where even after color is added the VOC level is zero or a “trace.” (The revised Green Guides permit “free of” claims where only a trace amount is present so long as the “trace” amount has not been added intentionally and does not cause the harm typically associated with the substance.) Alternatively they can make it clear that the “free of” claim applies only to the base paint. However, for paints where the VOC level after tinting is less than 50g/L they must disclose that the VOC level may increase, depending on color choice. If the VOC level exceeds 50g/L then they must disclose that the VOC level may increase “significantly” or “up to [insert highest possible level]” depending upon color choice. (Yes, there is a certain irony to the FTC requiring a company to make an “up to” claim.)
A few other things stand out with regard to these complaints. First, some of the challenged promotional materials were provided to distributors not consumers and the FTC’s complaint alleges that the companies provided independent retailers with the “means to deceptively advertise.” This continues a pattern by the Commission of more aggressively targeting green advertising that is not directly aimed at consumers. Second, the order requires the companies to put corrective stickers on paint cans that currently make those claims.
So if you really want to go green perhaps you’ll paint your house white. In the meantime don’t be surprised to see the Commission bringing more green cases in the weeks and months to come.