The FTC struggled with some legitimate issues when debating how and whether to incorporate life cycle provisions into the US Guide.
Canada's Guide, however, has for some time (like most guidelines around the world) made consideration of a product's life cycle a central issue in environmental claims. What exactly does it require? And what guidance does it provide on determining the net environmental benefit it also expects?
What does "considering" the life cycle entail?
Right upfront, Canada's Guide states that, "A principle of environmental claims is consideration for the life cycle of the product." (Clause 3.3)
If you are having visions of elaborate accounting exercises being required, don't panic. As Canada's Guide says, "CAN/CSA-ISO 14021 does not require a full life cycle analysis to be carried out to verify an environmental claim, but it does require consideration of the life cycle of the product."
What's the difference between an "analysis" and "consideration?" Although the terms aren't defined in Canada's Guide, life cycle analysis generally refers to the type conducted under life cycle analysis/assessment protocols that involve specific measurements of impacts and detailed inventory analysis.
"Consideration" is obviously less than that – although unfortunately there isn't a lot of detailed guidance on what it entails (except with certain claims like recovered energy and reduced energy, as discussed below). What Clause 5.9 says is that, "Environmental claims should be based on the best available information in each life cycle phase of the product to assess the net environmental benefit associated with a claim."
Exception – When Analysis Should be Done
One situation in which the Guide does refer to a life cycle "analysis" is where a sustainability claim is made. "A claim about a product's sustainability requires life cycle analysis and cannot be based on a single attribute of the product such as how it was managed and extracted." (Clause 4.6)
Net Environmental Impact
As indicated above, Canada's Guide says that, "It is not permissible to shift the environmental burden from one stage of a product's life to another and then make a claim concerning the improved stage without considering whether there is, in fact, a net overall environmental benefit." It also incorporates the ISO 14021 provision saying that claims must not only be true for the finished product but must also consider all relevant aspects of the life cycle "to identify the potential for one impact to be increased in the process of decreasing another."
The words "in the process of" decreasing another and reference to "shifting" the environmental burden from one stage of the life cycle to another suggest that you only need to identify a negative environmental factor that "results from" whatever you are doing to make the "improvement" (at least under this provision). An example given is using a gas for refrigeration that is non-ozone depleting, but makes the refrigerator less energy efficient (which apparently happens with some of them). If you make a claim about the non-ozone-depleting gas, the example says, you must either verify the net benefit OR clearly state the reduction in efficiency. (Canada's Guide, Clause 5.9; emphasis is ours.)
Other principles may require you to have a broader look, however. What if – quite apart from the new gas, which hasn't introduced a particular environmental downside – the metal used in your refrigerator is sourced from an operation in Nigeria that poisons all the local rivers and competitors are all using recycled material because it's easy to do, and you are a terrible environmental performer in all other ways. Can you still say: "Environmentally friendly: non-ozone-depleting gas?" You may well still be vulnerable to attack under general misleading advertising principles of material non-disclosure, among others.
Even Stricter Elsewhere
Note how some countries get even more explicit here. Under Finland's guidelines, for example, a general statement like "Environmentally friendly" can only be used if a product, "has considerably less environmental impact during its entire life cycle 'from cradle to grave' than other products in the same product group." So, good luck with that.
More Guidance on Net Environmental Benefit
There are some claims where Canada's Guide gets more specific on net environmental impact.
For example, with claims that your product is made with, or you are selling, "recovered energy" (energy that would have otherwise been wasted or dissipated, but instead is recovered and used - think cogeneration, for example), Canada's Guide instructs you first on how to calculate the recovered energy (Clause 10.6) and then says that the amount of energy recovered has to be greater than the energy used to power the recovery process itself. It also requires adverse effects on the environment resulting from the production of the energy from waste to be "managed and controlled". By way of example, Canada's Guide says that "recovered energy" claims shouldn't be made for energy produced from agricultural waste if the energy used to transport and process the waste exceeds the energy produced from the waste.
Clause 10.10 provides the same principles for reduced resource use claims, including how to calculate relevant quantities. The example given here is a new process enabling an appliance to be made from thinner and lighter sheets of steel. The downside is that production of the thinner sheets increases the energy required in the process. In this case, the recommended claim is, "This product has reduced its use of steel by X% for a net environmental benefit, although energy used in production was increased by Y%."
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.