The Sherwin-Williams Company and PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc., have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they misled consumers to believe that some of their paints are free of potentially harmful chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The two companies agreed to settlements with the FTC requiring them to stop making the allegedly deceptive claim that their Dutch Boy Refresh and Pure Performance interior paints, respectively, contain “zero” volatile organic compounds. According to the agency, while this may be true for the uncolored “base” paints, it is not true for tinted paint, which typically has much higher levels of the compounds, and which consumers usually buy.
VOCs are carbon-containing compounds that easily evaporate at room temperatures. Some VOCs can be harmful to human health and the environment. Historically interior paints, which are the subject of the FTC’s cases against Sherwin-Williams and PPG, have contained significant levels of VOCs.
The FTC’s administrative complaints against Sherwin-Williams and PPG charge the companies with violating the FTC Act by making false and unsubstantiated claims that that their paints contain “zero VOCs” after tinting.
Sherwin-Williams and PPG make their “zero-VOC” claims through a variety of media, including brochures, point-of-purchase marketing, product labels, and the Internet. Some of these materials are disseminated to independent distributors. The FTC contends that consumers likely reasonably interpret the companies’ “zero-VOC” claims as applying to the final product – tinted paint, which is made by adding color to a base paint to produce the final color the customer desires; and that they understand the claims to mean that the paint has no VOCs or only a “trace amount” of VOCs.
According to the FTC, however, in many instances, both Sherwin-Williams’s Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG’s Pure Performance paints contain more than trace levels of VOCs after the base paint is tinted. The complaints also charge the companies with distributing promotional materials that provided independent retailers with the means to deceptively advertise that the companies’ paints contain zero VOCs.
The proposed consent orders settling the FTC’s charges are the same for both Sherwin-Williams and PPG. First, they prohibit the companies from claiming that their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter, or the companies have competent and reliable scientific evidence that the paint contains no more than trace levels of VOCs. The definition of “trace” comes from the “trace amount” test included in the FTC’s recently released updated Green Guides for environmental marketing claims.
Alternately, the orders would allow the companies to clearly and prominently disclose that the “zero VOC” claims apply only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise. In cases where the tinted paint’s VOC level could be 50 grams per liter or more, the proposed orders require the companies to disclose that the VOC level may increase “significantly” or “up to [the highest possible VOC level after tinting].” In addition, the orders prohibit the companies from making any VOC claim or other environmental claim unless it is true and not misleading, and unless the companies have competent scientific evidence to back it up.
Finally, the proposed orders prohibit both Sherwin-Williams and PPG from providing anyone, including independent retailers or distributors, with the means of making any of the prohibited deceptive claims. The orders also would require the companies to send letters to retailers requiring them to remove all ads for the covered paints that have “zero VOC” claims and putting corrective stickers on current paint cans making these claims.
Information for Consumers and Business
According to the recently revised Green Guides to environmental marketing, which the FTC issued earlier this month, companies sometimes claim that their products are “free of” a chemical or other ingredient that may be an environmental concern. When marketers say a product is “free of” an ingredient, the product must not contain the ingredient or have only a trace amount. The “trace amount” test is met if: 1) the level of the ingredient is less than that which would be found as an acknowledged trace contaminant or background level; 2) the ingredient’s presence does not cause material harm that consumers typically associate with it; and 3) the ingredient has not been added intentionally.
The FTC has a new consumer education publication called “Before You Buy Paint” that specifically addresses “free of” claims as related to paint products. Other information about shopping green can be found on the FTC’s website, including a post on the agency’s Business Blog page.