“Green” marketing changes with new FTC guides

The marketing of a hotel as “green” or “sustainable” has emerged in recent years as an important component of the promotion arsenal used by the lodging industry.

The reason is simple. Both business and leisure travelers are increasingly looking for places to stay that protect the environment as well as the health of their guests. Added to that, many meetings and convention planners now operate under mandates that call for selection of only those facilities that are sustainable.

As a result, many different approaches to promoting sustainability have emerged – ranging from independent certification from a third-party to self-declaration.

But new guidance emerging from the Federal Trade Commission (the body that governs marketing, advertising and communications to consumers) late last year will necessitate significant changes in the way that hotels and lodging in the United States can make green claims moving forward.

FTC’s Environmental Marketing Guides, known more commonly as the Green Guides, were first drafted in 1992 to specifically govern advertising claims related to environmental benefits of a product or service. They were substantially revised and expanded this past October.

While they serve as guidance and not as laws or regulations, the Green Guides explain how the FTC interprets the law as it pertains to environmental claims to ensure truth in advertising and to guard against deceptiveness.  As a result, the Green Guides have an impact on several aspects of a hotel’s marketing as it relates to sustainability claims. 

Basically, any claim a hotel makes in its marketing or communications that conveys an environmental benefit or environmental health benefit is covered by the Green Guides. This applies to a claim that a hotel is green or sustainable or to a claim that any part of a hotel’s operation, features or services is green or sustainable.  While a product or service used or purchased by the hotel that makes such claims is also covered by the Green Guides, the hotel will not be held responsible unless it asserts these claims as well.

The changes made in the new Green Guides will have significant effects on how a hotel can market itself.  The guidance strongly discourages any general environmental benefit claims. For example, saying a hotel is green or sustainable and then not qualifying this claim with respect to specific features is interpreted as implying that the hotel is sustainable in every respect, which is impossible to prove and therefore misleading. Having a third party bestow this type of general claim does not relieve the hotel of the burden of proof.

Additionally, seals that suggest the hotel is environmentally preferable must be qualified so as not to convey a general benefit. In other words, a certification for a green or sustainable hotel should state the basis for the award in as specific terms as possible. The basis or qualification statement must be able to be substantiated with actual evidence.

The Green Guides also stipulate that it is deceptive to make an environmental claim that appears to be by a third party (independent and without conflict of interest) when it is not. “Self-certifications” or seals awarded by a hotel chain to itself must be disclosed as such. Also, certifications by a second party, such as an industry trade association or membership organization, must disclose this relationship. Finally, any material connection between the certifier and the certified party must be disclosed. For example, if the certifier has a board in any way controlled by the hotel industry, this must be disclosed.

The Green Guides are not intended to discourage environmental claims or marketing, but are constructed to ensure that marketing claims are truthful, can be substantiated and are not misleading or deceptive.

For hotels, it is important to qualify any environmental claims made and to make sure they can be substantiated fully. Certification by another party does not exonerate hotels from these requirements. The key is to fully meet the requirements of the new Green Guides and enable guests and meeting planners to identify sustainable lodging options with confidence.

Contributed by Dr. Arthur Weissman, president and CEO, Green Seal, Washington, D.C.