Legal Considerations with Sustainable Brand Storytelling
Whether steadily implementing your company's green agenda or successfully operating within its ethical principles, as a brand in sustainable or ethical fashion you want to be able to share your story with consumers and the general public at large. After all, not only will it strengthen the ethos with your existing customers, but it may also inspire others to consider incorporating these principles in to their own lives.
With any marketing however, including sustainable brand storytelling, you need to bear in mind the rules set forth by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is the agency with oversight and enforcement authority over marketing and advertising claims. One baseline method for creating truthful and non-deceptive statements includes ensuring your claims meet the "net impression standard," which evaluates whether an ad’s overall format would be misleading rather than looking solely at the text in isolation. Not only are the words used in the ad itself examined, but this analysis also takes into account any visual imagery, the interaction among all of the ad’s elements, and what the overall - or “net impression” - is that’s left in the mind of the reasonable consumer, or the reasonable sustainable fashion consumer” in the case of sustainable fashion.
The FTC has its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (aka "Green Guides”) which, while not binding, are a series of guidelines intended to help avoid making deceptive or untruthful “green” claims. This is known as “Greenwashing.” As it relates to fashion, the Green Guides apply to claims made directly on labels, in advertising, or any other form of marketing and in any medium, including where implied by symbols, depictions, logos, terms directly stated in a product’s brand name, or any other means. They also apply to business-to-business transactions and to claims about the environmental attributes of a product, package, or service when made in connection with the marketing or sale of such items.
Some common types of "green" claims related to fashion include being non-toxic, recyclable, made of recycled content, having a seal of approval, or being certified by an independent agency. Stating a product is " good for the environment," or "eco-friendly" are additional examples of what are considered general environmental claims.
As the FTC can assess penalties on a company where it finds deceptive or untruthful marketing, keep the following in mind as you craft your brand’s sustainable story.
1) Only accurately share actions taken without inadvertently stretching the truth to make the company “sound better,”
2) Where newsworthy sustainable activity has a limited application within the greater story you’re telling, be sure to state the narrow application and not give the impression the activity applied to the entirety of events, and
3) Remember that tweets, Reddit® posts, and other contributions made on social media are also considered marketing and therefore, must also abide by FTC guidelines.
The FTC has several publications in addition to the Green Guides to help brands craft their marketing claims and these may be found at www.ftc.gov.
Another resource is Deanna's book, “A Practical Guide to Fashion Law and Compliance,” which does a deep dive into marketing laws in chapter 4 and has an entire chapter (chap. 9) dedicated to sustainable fashion and is available here. More on this and other fashion law related material may also be found at our sister website dedicated strictly to fashion, entitled "Fashion Compliance," where is accessible at www.fashioncompliance.com.
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Deanna's article was first published in Fashion Mannuscript in Oct. 2018 at https://www.mannpublications.com/fashionmannuscript/2018/10/01/legal-considerations-with-sustainable-brand-storytelling/