Green Campaigns Violate FTC Regs: Paper Industry Group
On Earth Day, many credit unions promoted campaigns that encouraged members to enroll in e-statements and other paperless services.
But could credit unions that promote “Go Paperless, Save Trees” campaigns run afoul of FTC regulations?
A non-profit group funded by the paper, print and direct mail industries thinks so, and has taken aim at eco-friendly marketing messages tied to paperless solutions.
Two Sides U.S., a non-profit organization funded by firms such as International Paper Co., and the Envelope Manufacturers Association, contends that campaigns that tout paperless products and services as eco-friendly don’t meet Federal Trade Commission guidelines for green marketing.
The group claims it has convinced more than 20 U.S. banks and Fortune 500 firms to remove messages touting the environmental benefits of paperless solutions, according to press release issued earlier this year.
However, when contacted by the CU Times, Phil Riebel, the group’s president, declined to provide the names of any of the banks involved.
“We have agreed with the companies that we won’t mention them publicly, if they work with us,” Riebel said.
In 2012, the FTC issued revised “Green Guides,” which state marketers should qualify claims with clear, prominent and specific environmental benefits and analyze the impact of asserted claims.
“The introduction of environmentally friendly products into the marketplace is a win for consumers who want to purchase greener products and producers who want to sell them, but this win-win can only occur if marketers’ claims are truthful and substantiated,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz stated in a press release.
Some credit union leaders say Two Sides is barking up the wrong tree.
“My question to Two Sides would be: So, if we don’t print a two- to three-page paper statement, and we don’t stick it in a paper envelope, and we don’t mail it — via trucks that belch carbon emissions — 100,000 times a month … how is that not green again,” said Judith Repass Cowden, vice president of member relations and marketing at the $1.3 billion AmeriCU in Rome, N.Y., which is hosting a Go Paperless campaign this month.
Reducing paper use saves trees, and that meets the FTC’s requirement of a clear, prominent and specific environmental benefit, she said, because “historically, pulp and paper production has ranked among the most resource-intensive and highly polluting of all manufacturing industries.”
Before citing eco-friendly benefits, Two Sides also contended that organizations should conduct an analysis to determine the environmental impact of paperless solutions versus print solutions.
“Paperless initiatives are a visible, tangible, measurable way to demonstrate to members and employees that a credit union is committed to the environment and Corporate Social Responsibility,” said Coro Strandberg, a former chair of the $17.5 billion Vancity Credit Union in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Strandberg, who wrote the 2010 Filene Report "Credit Union Social Responsibility: A Sustainability Road Map,” said paperless solutions are good for people, the planet, productivity and profit.
“Reducing paper use is considered an easy, low-hanging-fruit way to reduce environmental impacts, unlike other measures which are tougher and more expensive to tackle like energy retrofits to buildings,” she explained
When asked if credit unions may be violating FTC regulations, Strandberg cautioned she’s not a lawyer, however, she added she doesn’t think credit unions should be concerned.
"FTC is concerned about misleading claims that a product is organic or natural, etc.," she said. "I don’t think their concerns extend to companies stating their reduced demand for paper helps save trees."
The FTC was unable to provide comment before press time. However, an official said the agency would provide CU Times with clarification regarding the guidelines and how they apply to credit union green marketing.
Two Sides and other pro-paper supporters point to the energy use of data centers and e-waste as evidence paperless solutions aren’t as eco-friendly as they claim. However, paperless advocates contend the paper industry’s vast use of natural resources, along with air, water and ground pollution, have a far greater impact.
In a recent blog post titled “Saving the Planet, One E-Signature at a Time,” Montreal-based e-signature provider Silanis, pressed that point.
“Storing electronic data does use electricity and create an entire data center industry where waste is an issue,” the firm wrote. “However, the amount of waste generated by such solutions can be far less significant than that generated through paper storage, especially as renewable energy resources and efficient power delivery systems become common in major data center environments. This makes it easier for e-signature software companies to offer incredibly sustainable platforms that help clients reduce their carbon footprint and contribute positively to the state of the planet.”
Despite studies showing Gen Y members and other consumers are flocking to online banking, Two Sides said most people prefer printed documents.
"It's clear that U.S. consumers like paper bills and statements and don't want to be pushed into electronic-only communications," Riebel said in a July 31, 2013 post on the organization’s website.
Since broad claims are difficult to substantiate, experts familiar with the FTC's Green Guides say credit unions should be as specific as possible.
"It would be better to state exactly how much is reduced by going paperless per some time period, like per year based on 12 annual statements or something like that, in my opinion," said attorney Jonathan Storper, head of the San Francisco firm Hanson Bridgett's Sustainable Business Practice.
Others agree that providing more details is the safest route.
"I'm not a lawyer, but I'm familiar with the FTC Green Guides and the efforts by the paper industry groups to scare the banks," said Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network. "There has never been a successful claim brought to FTC based on this assertion."
"Everyone from the EPA to my grandmother knows that reducing resource use is a good thing for sustainability and life cycle assessment shows the resource savings achieved when avoiding unnecessary paper use," he said. "But to avoid vagueness we recommend using factual language that says something more like 'reducing x tons of paper eliminates the need for x tons of wood, equivalent to approximately x number of mature trees'."
For credit unions that want to calculate and compare the environmental impacts of different paper choices, Martin said, EPN offers the Paper Calculator, a tool developed by Environmental Defense Fund.