Painting the town green

The biggest decision facing a DIYer in the paint store used to be whether Dusting of Snow or Wistful Beige was right for the dining room.  But nowadays more businesses are making express claims about their products, including purported environmental benefits.  Two of the nation’s leading paint companies — The Sherwin-Williams Company and PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc. — advertised that some of their paints were free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

First, a little VOC-ational education about paint.  Some VOCs (carbon-containing compounds that evaporate at room temperature) can be harmful to human health and to the environment.  Many interior wall paints contain significant levels of VOCs, so it’s not surprising that companies have introduced paints advertised as free of VOCs.  The “zero VOCs” claim for Sherwin-Williams' Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG's Pure Performance were on product labels, on point-of-purchase displays, online, and in the media.  The companies also disseminated them through promotional materials provided to independent distributors and retailers.

But the FTC says the companies colored the truth about the level of VOCs in the paint people bought.  According to the complaint, while the “zero VOCs” representation may have been accurate for the uncolored base, buyers generally get tinted paint, which may contain significant levels of VOCs. Therefore, the FTC charged that the companies’ “zero VOCs” claims were false.  The complaint also alleges that Sherwin-Williams and PPG gave distributors and retailers the “means and instrumentalities” to disseminate misleading claims, in violation of the FTC Act.

To settle the charges, the companies have agreed not to make deceptive claims in the future.  (Read the Sherwin-WIlliams pleadings and PPG pleadings for the specifics.)  If they say expressly or by implication that the VOC level of a paint is zero, they’ll need sound science to prove that it contains no VOCs — or no more than a trace level.  The definition of “trace level” comes from the FTC's revised Green Guides: that VOCs haven’t been intentionally added to the product, that the presence of VOCs at that level doesn’t cause material harm to health or to the environment typically associated with VOCs, and the VOC level isn’t higher than what’s found in background levels in ambient air.

The order gives the companies two other options.  If after tinting, the VOC level is below a certain specified level, the companies can clearly and prominently disclose that the claim applies only to the base paint and that the actual VOC level may increase, depending on the color choice.  A third option:  They can clearly and prominently disclose that the claim applies on to the base paint and that the VOC level may increase “significantly” or “up to [insert:  the highest possible VOC level after tinting],” depending on the color choice.  The order also bans unsubstantiated environmental benefit claims for any covered product.

In response to the FTC's lawsuit, the companies also agreed to send letters to their dealers and distributors, directing them to stop using ads and marketing materials making the “no VOCs” or “zero VOCs” claims challenged in the complaint.  Sherwin-Williams and PPG also will direct dealers and distributors to sticker over those claims on paint cans. 

What’s the take-away for businesses?  First, view claims from your customers’ perspective.  Put another way, what really matters to people shopping for paint?  The VOC levels in the base or in the paint that was actually going on the walls of their homes?  Second, if you haven’t had a chance to take a look at the revised Green Guides, here’s a timely opportunity.

Interested in commenting on the proposed settlements?  The deadline is November 26, 2012.  Contemplating a little do-it-yourself?  Read Before You Buy Paint.

 

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