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National Restaurant Association - When and when not to say “green”

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When and when not to say “green”

Green, sustainable, eco-friendly: You’ve seen such terms everywhere. They’ve become so common that their true meaning can be hard to distinguish.

According to the latest Federal Trade Commission Green Guides released in October 2012, the context for using such terms will now be more clear and casual usage will be more discouraged.

Why the Green Guides?

For a while now, restaurateurs and marketers have made liberal use of green imagery and claims to promote the environmental awareness of food and food-related products. The result has been a murkier understanding among increasingly doubtful audiences.

According to Cone Communications’ 2012 Green Gap Trend Tracker, 80 percent of American consumers don’t believe companies are addressing all of their impact on the environment. Only 44 percent trust companies’ green claims. This means transparency and accurate claims are increasingly important.

The FTC Green Guides first appeared in 1992 to help protect consumers from deceptive marketing. Their guidelines apply to marketing claims in public relations, advertising, labeling and promotional materials. They have been updated in 1996, 1998 and 2012.

The 2012 Green Guides are required reading for restaurant marketers if they’re to understand appropriate product labeling.

Key guidelines

The following are several core areas currently addressed by the Green Guides.

Steer clear of general claims. Avoid using “green” and “eco-friendly” unless associating them with a qualifiable benefit such as “our takeout-food packaging now contains 35 percent less plastic.” Company websites also cannot be used to substantiate misleading claims.

Present only validated certification. Restaurateurs and marketers may not create their own logo, seal or stamp that conveys environmental certification. Certifications must be third-party validated and narrowly defined to the environmental attribute.

Don’t be too free with “Free Of.” Use the term Free Of” only if the food or food-related ingredient was included in the original product. Don’t use it if the replacement or alternate ingredient has the same environmental or health risk. Marketers need to ensure the replacement isn’t switching one bad thing with another.

Monitor claims of non-toxic. For a restaurant-related item to be labeled as non-toxic, it must be safe for both people and pets and cause no harm to the environment. This must also be substantiated.

Be clear about renewable energy. The 2012 Green Guides call for all businesses to use clear, descriptive language anytime “renewable energy” appears on packaging. The renewable energy must extend from production to product packaging. If renewable energy is used only in part of the production cycle, businesses will need to share the type (e.g. solar, wind) and percentage of renewables used.

Verify compostable and biodegradable products. If a product is identified as compostable, it must mean it can be composted in home composters. If it can’t, limitations must be disclosed on the packaging. Biodegradable means a product will degrade in one year or less. Messaging must be clear concerning how to dispose of biodegradable items.

Review whether it’s recyclable. Products such as water bottles and paper carryout bags can’t be labeled recyclable unless at least 60 percent of U.S. communities can recycle the product through local recycling programs.

Tips for “greener” marketing

With so many new guidelines in place, restaurant marketers might wonder what they can say now. The good news is the updated guides create more balance among brands and restaurants by making claims more authentic and meaningful to the audience.

Here are some tips for restaurant marketers as they proceed with promotion:

  • Ensure that environmentally aware marketing intends to alter or persuade opinion.
  • Clearly explain the science behind claims of “green.” Make credible comparisons so your audience understands how food or food-related items favor health and the environment.
  • Have environmental experts review your messaging to make sure it’s accurate and defensible.
  • Keep current with environmental issues and science through media.
  • Have your legal counsel review any “greener” marketing notices. The National Restaurant Association’s suggestions serve as information and not as legal advice.

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