A piece published this week on Green Car Reports starts this way:
No one wants to buy a brand-new car, only to find out that its real-world fuel economy doesn’t match the numbers on the window sticker.
It struck me that this statement describes the plaintiffs in a number of greenwashing lawsuits filed (and covered in this space) over the last several years. The suits against Ford, Hyundai and Kia, Toyota, and Honda are notable examples where the actual miles-per-gallon allegedly did not match the sticker and/or the advertising.
Turns out the Federal Trade Commission will be revising its fuel-economy advertising guidelines and is seeking comments relating to ”information that helps marketers avoid deceptive or unfair claims,” among other things. Entitled the “Guide Concerning Fuel Economy Advertising for New Automobiles,” the guidelines were first issued in 1975.
One specific issue the FTC will consider is whether marketing material that makes a ”general fuel economy” claim should include a specific mile-per-gallon figure. Another question is whether an ad that specifies the fuel-economy rating in one EPA category or lists a specific mpg rating without specifying the category is deceptive.
For anyone familiar with the FTC’s Green Guides, these questions will be very familiar. The Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims were first published by the FTC in 1992 and have undergone at least three revisions, most recently in 2012.
The Green Guides states that claims of general environmental benefits are deceptive:
It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product, package or service offers a general environmental benefit.
Why? Because, the guides explain:
Unqualified general environmental benefit claims are difficult to interpret and likely to convey a wide range of meanings. In many cases, such claims likely convey that the product, package, or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the item or service has no negative environmental impact. Because it is highly unlikely that marketers can substantiate all reasonable interpretations of these claims, marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims.
It would be logical, I think, to extend this rule and its rationale to general fuel economy claims. Fuel economy ratings fall into different categories. They can be broken down into city and highway driving, for example, and many factors, such as how the car is tested, can determine the results.
Also, the Green Guides provide that marketing statements about recycling, for example, must specify exactly what percentage and which element of the product (the product itself, the packaging, or both) is recyclable or made from recycled material.
This required granularity should lend itself to rules that marketing statements about fuel economy benefits need to specify, among other things, the EPA category being touted.
Of course it was inevitable that regulators in particular fields would contemplate promulgating or revising their rules to take into account deceptive environmental marketing claims. They are fortunate to have the Green Guides to guide them.