Could ‘Go Paperless’ Messaging Violate FTC Guidelines? Not Likely

In the last few years, some companies promoting the fact that they use only “paperless” communications have been told that they are running the risk of violating Federal Trade Commission regulations with their messaging. An organization called Two Sides – a group of companies in the graphic communications industry including forestry, pulp, paper, printing, envelopes and postal operators – has contacted companies that use messaging like “go green, go paperless,” warning them that unsubstantiated claims can lead to action from the FTC.

On the other side of the issue is the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a group of organizations that calls itself “the voice on pulp and paper sustainability issues across the global supply chain and paper’s life cycle.” The EPN points out that, while the FTC has brought action in recent years for deceptive claims related to product biodegradability, bamboo content, and environmental certification claims, there has never yet been an FTC enforcement action related to paperless assertions. And, the EPN goes on, there is no indication that the FTC’s concerns extend to companies stating that efficiency in paper use has positive environmental impacts.

While Two Sides may be pushing for the removal of all “green” paperless marketing messages because such messaging may run the risk of violating FTC regulations, the EPN suggests the following steps to ensure that an organization’s marketing claims regarding paper waste reduction are accurate, follow federal green marketing guidelines, and are fully substantiated.

Step 1: Be specific and avoid general statements.

The FTC Green Guides are designed to help marketers ensure that the claims they make are truthful and substantiated. To follow this guidance, instead of using language like “go green, go paperless” or “go paperless and save trees/help the environment,” be more specific in stating the benefits and results of reducing paper consumption. The FTC recommends using marketing claims that are truthful, not misleading, and supported by a reasonable basis of competent and reliable scientific evidence.

[Editor’s note: the EPN suggests its own Paper Calculator that the organization says will help quantify a company’s estimated environmental savings from reducing paper use or from switching to recycled content paper. More on the Paper Calculator below.]

Also be sure to acknowledge that electronic communications have environmental impacts by noting that the benefits cited are based solely on paper savings.

Here are two examples of specific, substantiated and properly cited claims:

  • If 50% of our customers switched to electronic billing, the savings every year would be approximately 200,000 pounds of paper, equivalent to 740,000 pounds of wood or 2,400 trees. 
  • By switching to electronic statements, our customers have saved approximately 2,000 tons of paper annually, equivalent to 48,000 trees.

(Both of the above environmental impact estimates were made using the EPN’s Paper Calculator Version 3.2.1. )

You can also safely make statements such as the following:

By choosing e-statements to go paperless, you can:

  • Reduce the amount of paper, ink and power used to produce paper statements;
  • Help us reduce the cost of producing and mailing paper statements;
  • View and save statements on your computer any time;
  • Reduce the waste and associated environmental impacts of disposing of paper statements;
  • Reduce the risk of theft of personal information during disposal;
  • Receive an email alert when your e-statement is available.

Step 2: Cite research to back up your claims.

One way to do this is to use the life cycle assessment estimates of the Paper Calculator. The Paper Calculator is a free resource that provides environmental impact estimates for paper reduction efforts. It is supported by the EPN’s 140 not-for-profit member organizations and is based on a peer-reviewed life cycle assessment (LCA) and analytical report of the impacts of paper production and disposal. The report was produced after several years of study by the Paper Task Force, a voluntary, private-sector initiative that included Environmental Defense Fund, Duke University, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Prudential Insurance, and Time Inc.

While the EPN owns the Paper Calculator, a leading independent life cycle assessment firm provides management and consulting expertise. The resource is kept up to date with new inputs and information based on North American paper industry data and new advancements in the understanding of the paper lifecycle.

Using and citing a scientific tool like the Paper Calculator will ensure that your marketing statements are verified and clear, and in full compliance with the FTC and other guidelines.

Step 3: Keep calm and carry on (the FTC’s actions show that they agree that paper reduction conserves resources).

The EPN agrees that any accusation that an organization’s messaging may violate regulations should be taken very seriously but points out that the FTC’s Green Guides are not agency rules or regulations. They are simply guidance that describes the types of environmental claims that the FTC may or may not find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. If someone files a report with the FTC regarding your marketing claims, then they will review your messaging. If it is found to be unsupported or deceptive, then they may take action including demands to remove it and prohibiting such marketing in the future. Fines could be applied if those orders are later violated.

But it is important to note that the FTC does not require use of an LCA to support an environmental claim; by using a source like the Paper Calculator which is based on lifecycle assessment, an organization is actually providing an extra step of verification. Specifically, the Green Guides say “Marketers must ensure that all reasonable interpretations of their claims are truthful, not misleading, and supported by a reasonable basis before they make the claims. In the context of environmental marketing claims, a reasonable basis often requires competent and reliable scientific evidence. Such evidence consists of tests, analyses, research, or studies that have been conducted and evaluated in an objective manner by qualified persons and are generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results.”

More info

 

FTC Issues Revised Green Guides: Will Help Marketers Avoid Making Misleading Environmental Claims

Environmental Claims – Summary of Green Guides, a four-page summary of the changes in the Guides

Two Sides

Environmental Paper Network

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