The major guidance document dealing with “green” claims is the Federal Trade Commission's Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, issued in 1992, revised in 1996 and 1998, and now undergoing a review that will likely result in a new document later in 2009 or early in 2010.

Like other industry guides issued by the FTC, the so-called “Green Guides” are administrative interpretations of laws administered by the Commission and are designed to help marketers avoid unfair or deceptive claims about the environmental properties of their products or processes. While the Guides do not have the force of law, the FTC can take action if a business makes a claim that is inconsistent with the Guides.

The Guides cover issues such as general environmental benefits of a product or process (e.g., “environmentally friendly”), as well as claims about recycling, being ozone-safe or -friendly, or source reduction.

One of the weaknesses of the Guides — and one of the reasons they are under review by the FTC — is that they don't cover environmental claims related to carbon neutrality, sustainability, and renewability. Terms now in common use, such as “carbon footprint,” don't have a precise definition, so it's difficult for a planner or hotel to understand the precise impact of its claims.

What to Look for

Notwithstanding the FTC's need to update its Guides, several statements can be made about environmental marketing claims used by planners and hotels:

  • All express or implied claims about the attributes of a meeting, event, or venue must have substantiation (that is, a reasonable basis for the claims). This may require competent and scientific evidence (such as a test) or evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant field who have reviewed the claim.

  • Claims should not overstate or exaggerate attributes or benefits. For instance, if a planner states that a particular meeting is using “50 percent more recycled content than before,” such a claim may convey a false impression if the overall use of recycled material increased from, say, 2 percent to 3 percent.

  • Comparative claims should be clear to avoid confusion about what is being compared. For example, if a hotel claims that it is using “50 percent more recycled content,” the claims may be viewed as ambiguous because it's not clear whether the comparison is to a competitor hotel's use of recycled material or its own previous use of recycled material.

Specificity does exist in claims regarding the construction aspects of a specific hotel venue. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards set forth an objective and specific set of criteria for venue owners to use in promoting the their hotels. If a claim is made in marketing material and if that claim is an important factor in a planner's selection of a particular hotel, that reliance should be set forth in the meeting contract so that it becomes a legal representation which, if untrue, will provide a reason for remedial action by the planner.

While there are no such specifics for meeting and event planners in the U.S., the U.K.'s national standards body, BSI British Standards, has released BS 8901:2007 Specification for a Sustainable Event Management System, as a three-phase system. Phase 1 includes appointing a “sustainability champion,” identifying issues specific to a meeting situation, creating a development policy that includes objectives, and engaging with all stakeholders such as attendees and venues. Phase 2 includes supply chain management and operational controls, while Phase 3 focuses on reviewing compliance and performance.

Going green is commendable, but it must be done in the context of existing legal frameworks. And, if specific actions are desired (e.g., the use of recycled materials in serving plates), then all agreed-upon parameters should be spelled out in the meeting contract.

James M. Goldberg is a principal in the Washington law firm of Goldberg & Associates PLLC. His practice focuses on representing associations, corporations, and independent meeting planners. He is the author of The Meeting Planner's Legal Handbook.