“Zero VOC” labels and claims have landed two major U.S. paint and coating companies in hot water with a federal agency that’s on a mission to cut out misleading environmental marketing verbiage.
The Sherwin-Williams Company and PPG Architectural Finishes Inc. settled Thursday (Oct. 25) with the Federal Trade Commission on charges that they misled consumers to believe that some of their paints were free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
|The orders would ban the companies from claiming that their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless they have zero VOCs after tinting or the companies can prove the claim.|
Under the similar agreements, the companies said they will stop making allegedly deceptive claims that two of their interior paints are “zero VOC,” the FTC said.
The settlement orders carry no fines.
FTC: Paints Not Truly ‘Zero’
The products involved in the FTC cases are Sherwin-Williams’ Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG’s Pure Performance interior paints, which contain “more than trace levels” of the potentially harmful chemicals, according to the FTC.
The definition of “trace” comes from the “trace amount” test included in the FTC’s recently revised Green Guides for environmental marketing claims.
The federal agency said that while the companies’ uncolored “base” paints may truly be “zero VOC,” the same is not true for tinted paints.
Moreover, the tinted products typically have much higher levels of the compounds and are more frequently purchased by consumers, FTC said.
This is the third time in three years that Sherwin-Williams has been rebuked on its advertising claims.
In March 2010, the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division urged that Sherwin-Williams cease advertising claims that its Dutch Boy Refresh Paint boasted “odor-eliminating technology” and could eliminate household odors.
|FTC says that Sherwin-Williams’ claims on Dutch Boy Refresh interior paint are misleading. Refresh drew another advertising complaint in 2010.|
In 2011, NAD again slapped Sherwin-Williams for advertising its Harmony paint line as VOC free. That case was sparked by a complaint from Benjamin Moore.
NAD urged Sherwin-Williams to discontinue ads that claimed that the entire line—even hues that used conventional colorants—was VOC free. Sherwin-Williams argued that “both consumers and the industry understand zero-VOC claims to pertain only to the majority of colors in a paint line, as opposed to being a 100% ‘line claim,’” but the company agreed to drop the claim.
VOCs are carbon-containing compounds that easily evaporate at room temperatures and can be harmful to human health and the environment. Historically, interior paints have contained significant levels of VOCs, the FTC noted.
The new proposed consent orders are the same for both PPG and Sherwin-Williams.
The orders “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,” according to the FTC.
“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,” the agency said.
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].”
Reducing Environmental Claims
The orders also 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.
PPG Pittsburgh Paints
|PPG’s Pure Performance interior paints contain “more than trace levels” of potentially harmful volatile organic compounds, according to the FTC.|
Finally, the orders 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, the FTC said.
The agreements are subject to public comment until Nov. 26, after which the FTC will decide whether to make them final.
FTC Issues Green Guidance
“Environmental claims, like the VOC-free claims in this case, are very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to confirm,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
“That’s why it’s so important for the FTC to give clear guidance to marketers, like the Commission’s recently revised Green Guides, and to police the market to ensure that consumers actually get what they pay for.”
The FTC recently revised its Green Guides to crack down on false or misleading marketing claims.
The new guidelines are summarized here.
Sherwin-Williams: Studying New Rules
Sherwin Williams said it was reviewing its labeling and other marketing information to ensure compliance with the FTC’s new procedures for describing VOCs in marketing information for paint, according to a statement.
News of the FTC case came on the heels of Sherwin-William’s better-than-expected third-quarter results, which were released early Thursday.
With annual sales of $7.8 billion, the Cleveland-based coatings manufacturer is the largest in the U.S. and the third-largest in the world. Its brands include Sherwin-Williams, Dutch Boy, Krylon, Minwax, and Thompson’s WaterSeal.
PPG: Working to Clarify
PPG said that its Pure Performance interior base paints do not contain VOCs, and the company’s marketing claims apply only to the base paints, according to a statement by Jeremy Neuhart, the corporate public relations manager.
However, Neuhart said added colorants may result in products containing “varying levels of VOCs.”
PPG said it was working with the FTC to clarify its marketing messages about low- or zero-VOC paints.
A subsidiary of PPG Industries Inc., PPG Architectural Finishes Inc. does business under its own name, as well as under the names PPG, Pittsburgh Paints, Porter Paints, Pure Performance Paints and Olympic stain. The company is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.