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(Reuters)

The FTC is Watching Your Back

In most parts of this country dog owners have a legal responsibility to “Pick Up After Your Pet!.”  We’re talking about a lot of poop, here.  According to the American Pet Products Association, nearly 57 million households own at least one dog.  To put this in perspective, 62% more homes have dogs than children under the age of 18! (1)

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If you happen to be a dog owner (and law-abiding), you are well-acquainted with the joys of “poop patrol.”  If you are also the slightest big concerned about the impact of all these plastic bags on the environment, you probably pay extra for the kind of doggie bags that disintegrate after a year.  To encourage residents to clean up after Fido and Fifi, some communities and parks have strategically placed free poop bag dispensers along walkways.  The bags are often green (of course).  One brand happily claims it is “Here today, gone in a year!”

Nice thought.  Catchy advertising.  But, alas, probably not true.

Don’t worry: the Federal Trade Commission has picked up the scent and is hot on the trail of tracking down the source of this misleading marketing.

Don’t Claim to Be “Green” If It’s Not What You Mean

Eco-marketing is a huge trend.  Manufacturers know that many consumers will pay a premium for something if they believe it is less harmful to the environment.  But what exactly does “green” mean?

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To clarify, the FTC created green marketing guidelines that a firm has to meet in order to claim that their product or service is environmentally-friendly.(2)  According to Laureen France in the FTC’s Seattle office, “We did research for our environmental marketing guides.  When consumers see ‘biodegradable’ most are thinking ‘one year or less’ [and] that it degrades into something found in nature.”  

France confirms that many doggie bags do, in fact, “have an additive that causes plastic to break down when exposed to air and light.” 

However, therein lies the problem.

First, compost sites generally do not accept pet waste. If you toss the bag into the trash, it ends up in a landfill where there is no light or air.  Hence, most of these supposedly environmentally-friendly poop bags take much longer than a year to break down.  Plus, France points out that if the bag ever degrades, “it turns into plastic dust“- a substance that is definitely not “natural.“

The bottom line: there’s no environmental benefit to these bags and they cost more.  Or as France puts it, “We are concerned that the marketplace and consumers are being bamboozled by these marketing claims that can’t be substantiated.”

Bark if You Smell Something!

“Our mission is to protect consumers from practices that are deceptive, anti-competitive or unfair,” explains Chuck Harwood, the FTC’s regional director in Seattle who oversees the northwest region.

Like most cases the FTC investigates, the poop bag matter was brought to the agency’s attention by a member of the public. “We had a guy who sells plastic bags and supplies the pet market.  He isn’t able to compete because he knows the FTC green guidelines and is unwilling to make claims about degradability and compostability.”

According to Harwood, the FTC figures “if there is a large number of companies engaging in the same conduct, there is probably a lot of confusion about what marketers can say.”  So the first step is a friendly warning.  “We sent letters asking them to tell us what they intend to do about their claims- remove, revise, nothing?  This is an opportunity to fix the problem before they have legal liability. Companies appreciate that.”

Serious Business

While the poop bag issue is relatively harmless, most of the issues the FTC tackles are not.  Take last month for instance. “We shut down a revenge porn operation,” says Harwood.  Huh?

Craig Brittain, the operator of a website, allegedly obtained nude photos and videos of individuals and posted them on the internet.  He then demanded the victims pay hundreds of dollars to have them removed.  His settlement with the FTC requires that he destroy the images and the personal information he collected.

Last year the FTC settled two major “cramming” cases.  Many phone providers will bill consumers on behalf of third-party marketers by adding their charges to your monthly statement.  While some of these are legitimate apps or services that the consumer wants, in many cases a “marketer gets the consumer to inadvertently agree to have the charge appear each month,” says Harwood.  “Because phone bills are so confusing, consumers have a hard time identifying these charges.”

But even when customers contacted T-Mobile and AT&T and explained that they had not authorized a charge, the bills just kept on coming.  In its complaint, the FTC alleged that it should have been clear to T-Mobile and AT&T that thousands of customers had not authorized “services” such as horoscope messages, flirting tips and love advice.    T-Mobile paid $90 million in payments and refunds.  AT&T subscribers got $80 million.

Criticize. Bitch.  Grumble. Make a Fuss.  Please!

When is the last time someone actually invited you to complain?  Said “Thank you” for griping about how you feel a manufacturer or seller has misrepresented a product or treated you unfairly?  

The fact is, the FTC relies on individual Americans to help keep our marketplace fair and honest.  “The cases we bring [to court] are determined by the number of complaints we get,” says Harwood. “If there’s a large number, it’s more likely to be investigated.”

More than two million complaints a year are reported to the FT.  However, while the agency wants to hear from you, it does not have the resources to represent your individual case.  “We’re required to focus on the public interest, issues with a broad range of injury that affect lots of people,” explains Harwood. The FTC logs the complaints it receives and uses them to identify targets.

You can file a complaint with the FTC by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), but online is the preferred method: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/.  The reason is simple: “If someone complains in New York,” says Harwood, “we’ll instantly see this in Seattle.”

“While we bring a lot of law enforcement actions in federal court, most consumer injury is prevented by smart consumers who spot the problem before they are ever a victim. They’re educated.  They do their research on everything from cars to environmental products to funeral goods.”(3)

Just to Wrap This Up…

As for those biodegradable poop bags?  Don’t be surprised if they are harder and harder to find. “If they can’t substantiate their claims, they need to stop making them,” says France.  “We’ll circle back.”   If manufacturers don’t change their deceptive advertising, FTC will open an investigation, file a complaint and they will ultimately end up in court.  Wouldn’t that be the poops?

1. 1. U.S. Census, Table F1. http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2014F.html
2. See http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2012/10/ftc-issues-revised-green-guides
3. Consumer educational materials on a wide range of topics can be found at: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/
Businesses will find educational materials at: http://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center

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