Ben Cooper, MJLST Staffer
On March 16, 2021 a trio of environmental groups filed an FTC complaint against Chevron alleging that Chevron violated the FTC’s Green Guides by falsely claiming “investment in renewable energy and [Chevron’s] commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution.” The groups claim that this complaint is the first to use the Green Guides to prevent companies from making misleading environmental claims. Public attention has supported companies that minimize their environmental impact, but this FTC complaint suggests that a critical regulatory eye might be in the future. If the environmental groups convince the FTC to enforce the Green Guides against Chevron, other companies should review the claims they make about their products and operations.
A Morning Consult poll released in early December 2020 showed that nearly half of U.S. adults supported expanding the use of carbon removal practices and technologies. Only six percent of survey respondents opposed carbon removal practices. In response to the overwhelming public support for carbon reduction, hundreds of major companies are making some type of commitment to reduce their carbon footprint and curb climate change. One popular program, the Science Based Targets initiative, has over 1,200 participants who made various pledges to decarbonize (or offset the carbon within) their operations.
International and non-governmental organizations took the reins of climate change policy, especially once the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017. “Climate change seems to be the leading fashion statement for business in 2019,” declared a Marketplace story in October of 2019. Yet, as with fashion, style only gets one so far. Substance is key—and often lacking. One of the founders of the Science Based Targets initiative criticized fashionable but flimsy voluntary corporate commitments: “[T]here is not a lot of substance behind those [voluntary corporate] commitments or the commitments are not comprehensive enough.”
The voluntary commitments placated environmental groups when the alternative was the Trump Administration’s silence—but the Biden Administration presents an eager environmental partner: the FTC complaint “is the first test to see if [the Biden Administration] will follow through with their commitment to hold big polluters accountable,” said an environmental group spokesperson according to a Reuters report. The consensus of environmental groups, industry commentators, and regulatory observers appears to be that government oversight is imminent to encourage consistency and accountability—and to avoid “greenwashing.”
Should organizations that make environmental claims be concerned about enforcement action? It is too early to tell if the Chevron FTC complaint portends future complaints. In the Green Guides, the FTC declared that it seeks to avoid placing “the FTC in the inappropriate role of setting environmental policy,” which might suggest that it will stick to questions of misrepresentation and avoid wading into questions of evaluating environmental claims. It is also worth noting that the FTC is missing one of its five commissioners and Commissioner Rohit Chopra is expected to resign in anticipation of his nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While the FTC might not be in a position at the moment to enforce the Green Guides, organizations that make environmental claims in marketing materials should monitor this complaint and ensure their compliance with FTC guidance as well as any policy changes from the Biden Administration.