Planners and hoteliers are actively searching for ways to make their meetings and venues more green — and they are promoting their efforts to appeal to today's more environmentally conscious buyer. But often the claims made aren't checked against prevailing legal standards.

The Green Guide

The major guidance document dealing with green claims is the Federal Trade Commission's Environmental Guides, issued in 1992, revised in 1996 and 1998, and now undergoing a review that likely will result in a new document later this year or early in 2010.

The so-called “Green Guides” are administrative interpretations of laws administered by the FTC 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 and are not independently enforceable, the FTC can take action if a business makes an environmental claim that is inconsistent with the guides.

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

One of the weaknesses of the guides — and one of the reasons why they are under review — is that they don't cover environmental claims related to carbon neutrality, sustainability, and renewability.

Red Flags

Even though the guides are in need of an update, they still offer some useful direction for those judging environmental marketing claims:

  • All express or implied claims about the attributes of a meeting, event, or venue must have a reasonable basis. This may be scientific evidence (such as a test) or evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant field who have reviewed the claim and found it to be creditable.

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

  • Comparative claims should be clear to avoid confusion. 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.

Claims regarding the construction of a hotel can be more specific. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards set forth an objective and specific set of criteria venue owners can use. If a claim made in marketing materials is important to the site-selection decision, the claim should be included in the meeting contract so that the planner will have a reason for remedial action should it prove untrue.

While there are no such specifics for meeting and event planners in the United States, the United Kingdom's national standards body, BSI British Standards, has released BS9801:2007 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 a laudatory goal for planners and hoteliers, but it must be done in the context of an existing legal framework. And, if specific activity is 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.

For more meetings-related legal advice, see our Law and Contracts special report.