A recent comment the FTC filed with the Marine Stewardship Council about the Council’s certification program for fisheries offers a line on the importance of consumer perception when issuing environmental seals and certifications.
The Marine Stewardship Council runs a program to encourage sustainable fishing practices. It doesn’t directly certify individual fisheries. Instead, it drafts standards that authorized certifiers implement. If a fishery is certified by one of those approved groups, the Council licenses its “Certified Sustainable Seafood” mark so retailers — grocery stores, usually — can use it on labels for seafood from that fishery.
Usually it’s us asking for feedback, but this time the FTC responded to the Council’s request for public comment about its program. As the comment mentions, the FTC recently revised its Green Guides with a particular emphasis on environmental seals and certifications. The Guides recognize that seals and certs can be important to a consumer’s decision about what to buy, especially when it comes to technical topics like the environmental benefit of choosing one seafood over another. (Ever tried to maneuver a shopping cart during rush hour at the MegaLoMart while researching international sustainability standards? Neither have we.)
According to the FTC’s comment, “As your public inquiry recognizes, it is important to ensure that the standards for [the Council’s] seal are grounded in solid science, which should be objectively applied.” But that’s only part of the picture: “It is equally important that the seal convey information that is truthful, and that does not deceive consumers.” Central to that analysis under the FTC Act is what reasonable consumers would understand the seal or certification to mean. “If a certifier permitted practices that reasonable consumers found inconsistent with their interpretation of the seal, the certifier should change the seal or change the certification process to comport with that understanding.”
So where can companies go for advice on avoiding deception when making environmental claims? Why, the FTC’s Green Guides, of course.
The comment makes it clear that the FTC isn’t taking a position on the legality of the Marine Stewardship Council’s “Certified Sustainable Seafood” label. It’s simply underscoring the point that the seal — and environmental seals from any other third-party certifier — should comport with the Green Guides.
Even if fish aren’t your game, if you make environmental claims, the FTC comment offers a timely oppor-tuna-ty for salmon at your company to consider consumer perception — particularly net impression — when developing seal and certification programs.
By the way, “net impression" isn't just another bad fish pun. That’s the legal standard. Reel-y.