As the promotional products industry rallies against its “brandfill” reputation, more companies are leaning into marketing strategies that emphasize sustainability and responsibility.

However, claims about one’s environmental impact comes with risk, especially if those claims aren’t verified. Recent legal cases targeting green claims were reviewed by Law360 and indicate that companies must be ever so careful with what they purport.

The following are four trends to be wary of concerning eco-friendly marketing efforts.

1. Recyclable Packaging

When something is labeled “recyclable,” what exactly does that mean?

Well, more plaintiffs are arguing that it means products contain materials that were already recycled. However, the federal district court for the Northern District of California rejected this argument in Swartz v. Coca-Cola Co., finding that “recyclable” is an “adjective that means capable of being recycled” rather than “a promise that an object will actually be recycled.”

The court referred to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, which state that a product or package shouldn’t be marketed as recyclable “unless it can be collected, separated or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.”

  • The Green Guides also state that something can be marketed as recyclable if recycling facilities are available to at least 60% of “consumers or communities where the item is sold.”

Elizabeth Wimbush, director of sustainability and responsibility at PPAI, stresses that promo firms “only claim as much as you can prove.” 

“Is your packaging a single material item that’s accepted and easily sorted in municipal recycling facilities? Great, advertise it as recyclable,” Wimbush says. “Is just one part of the multi-material item potentially recyclable in very narrow circumstances? Not so much. Educate yourself by visiting a local materials recovery facility, ensure your suppliers have verifiable data and if they are third-party certified, understand what that specific certification means.” 

 2. Aspirational Claims

Your aspirational claims can’t be like your New Year’s resolutions – you have to actually stick to them.

If your company announces a sustainability goal, it has to be substantiated with data tracking your progress.

In 2023, a panel of the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) recommended that JBS USA Holdings, the largest animal protein producer in the world, discontinue certain claims relating to its goal of achieving “net zero” emissions by 2040. 

  • If JBS had submitted “a plan with specific objectives and measurable outcomes likely to be achieved,” the company would’ve been able to provide evidence of its intention to achieve said goal.

“This is another area where you want to have concrete data to back up any claims made,” Wimbush says. “Net zero goals are only achievable if you have a baseline for your carbon footprint with measurable reduction strategies. It's like algebra – showing your work, not just the final answer, is worth half the marks. Impact reports don't have to be impossibly long, so start with three goals, why they're important and how you're going to achieve them. Continuously improve.” 

Wimbush encourages promo firms to sign up with the Science Based Targets Initiative to set a reduction goal, get a clearly defined path to it and be held accountable for reaching it. 

3. Third-Party Certifications

Although third-party certifications are certainly effective in supporting green claims, they’re not bulletproof, especially if they’re not compliant with the FTC’s Green Guides.

  • For example, the National Advertising Division last year recommended that the One Health Certification Foundation discontinue environmental benefit and general animal welfare claims related to its certification of poultry products because it only collected environmental impact data instead of holding recipients to a certain standard.

While third-party certification can go a long way in helping you clarify and prove your claims, Wimbush advises promo pros to do their homework, asking questions like:

  • What standards are being used and who is doing the accreditation?
  • Is it free from bias or conflicts of interest?
  • What are the qualifications of the auditors or experts responsible for the assessments?
  • What measures are in place to maintain the integrity of the certification process?
  • Are there examples of other companies that have been certified?
  • How often is the certification reviewed or renewed?
  • Is there transparency in the certification process and recourse in the event of disputes or grievances? 

“If you don't feel good about any of the answers you get,” Wimbush says, “keep looking.” 

4. General Environmental Benefit Claims

Be careful advertising a product as sustainable if there’s some aspect in the supply chain that contradicts your claim.

  • Starbucks recently found out the hard way after being sued by the National Consumers League for claiming its coffee and tea are ethically sourced despite alleged “severe human rights and labor abuses” at the farms and cooperatives in the supply chain.

Wimbush urges promo firms to “avoid vague language and buzz words that you can't fully explain.”

“A component or process that is ‘eco-friendly’ can be difficult to prove, and different states have different laws on what exactly qualifies as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable.’ So again – and I can't stress this enough – only claim what you can prove,” Wimbush says.