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Legal to Label Your Business 'Sustainable'?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on February 19, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

"Sustainable," "green," and "organic" are all words businesses use to display their commitment to the environment. Or at least to greenwash their products and draw in eco-friendly customers.

Even McDonald's is getting into the game by calling the fish for its new Fish McBites and its classic Filet-O-Fish sandwich "sustainable." They're endorsed by the Marine Stewardship Council, NPR reports.

But do you need some stamp of approval to call your business sustainable? And if so, whom do you get it from?

Who Regulates Ecolabels?

When it comes to eco-friendly language, some words are regulated by the government; others are backed by private organizations.

The word "organic," for example, is defined and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. If you don't meet the standards, you can't use it.

The same goes for "LEED certified" on a sustainable building, although the term is regulated by a non-governmental organization. You can advertise it if you qualify, but you have to meet certain guidelines.

Then there are other words like "natural" and "sustainable" which customers recognize, but the government doesn't regulate. You can use those terms but if customers disagree, your brand identity could suffer.

While McDonalds is calling its fish "sustainable," it's also supporting that claim by relying on MSC certification. There are other organizations that provide certifications for fish and even more that will certify "fair trade" or "green" labels, according to Consumer Reports.

Truth in Advertising

Even without a certifier, it's possible to use these unregulated terms. But you still have to be careful about what you say.

Truth in advertising always applies, especially to words that aren't officially defined by the USDA or other government agencies. If you make a claim, you need a way to back it up.

Untrue or misleading claims can get you in trouble both with government officials and with your customers. No one wants to feel lied to.

So far, McDonald's hasn't caught too much flak for labeling its fish as "sustainable," and they likely won't be swimming into any legal trouble. Overcoming its fast-food image to appeal to the eco-friendly market could be much more of a challenge.

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