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FTC Slaps Sherwin, PPG on VOC Marketing

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

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The Sherwin-Williams Company and PPG Industries must cease their long-running “zero VOC” claims on two major paint lines, under a new agreement with the Federal Trade Commission.

Just days after the FTC issued a new guide to rein in unsupportable and misleading “green” marketing claims, it announced a settlement with two of the world’s largest paint companies, taking them to task for allegedly misleading consumers about the Volatile Organic Compounds in some of their product lines.

It was the third time in three years that a third party has taken Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams to task over its environmental claims in advertising.

Under the settlement announced Thursday (Oct. 25), both Sherwin-Williams and PPG Architectural Finishes agreed to stop making allegedly deceptive claims that two of their interior paints are “zero VOC.”

In 2010, the Better Business Bureau found that Sherwin-Williams did not provide sufficient evidence to support its claims of "odor-eliminating technology" on Dutch Boy Refresh.


The settlements, which carry no fines, resolve FTC charges that the paint and coating makers misled consumers to believe that some of their paints were free of VOCs.

‘More than Trace Amounts’

The FTC case involves Sherwin-Williams’ Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG’s Pure Performance interior paints, which contain “more than trace amounts” of the potentially harmful VOCs, according to the FTC.

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 definition of “trace” comes from the “trace amount” test included in the FTC’s newly revised Green Guides for environmental marketing claims. Those guides prohibit, among other things, the use of broad labels such as “green,” “eco friendly,” and “environmentally friendly,” unless they are backed by appropriate scientific evidence of their benefits.

The federal agency said that while Sherwin-Williams’ and PPG’s uncolored “base” paints may be zero VOC, the same is not true for tinted paints. In fact, tinted products typically have much higher levels of VOCs and are more frequently purchased by consumers, the FTC said.

2 Earlier Complaints

This is Sherwin-Williams’ third public dust-up over its environmental claims in less than three years.

Retailers will need to relabel cans of Refresh now labeled "Zero VOC," the FTC said. 


In March 2010, the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division urged Sherwin-Williams to cease advertising claims that Dutch Boy Refresh boasted “odor-eliminating technology” and could eliminate household odors.

That case was initiated by a challenge from PPG, which made a competing product. The NAD concluded that Sherwin-Williams’ claims about “’odor eliminating technology’ conveyed the message that Refresh paint will reduce odors to a level that is not detectable to the average consumer during the useful life of the paint.”

However, the agency found that the manufacturer’s field and lab testing “did not provide sufficient evidence to support such claims and recommended that the advertiser either discontinue the claims or modify the claims to better reflect the test results….”

In 2011, Benjamin Moore & Co. went after Sherwin-Williams for claiming that its Harmony paint line—even dark hues that used conventional colorants—was VOC free. Again, NAD urged Sherwin-Williams to discontinue the ads.

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 it agreed to drop the claim.

Consent Orders

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.

PPG Industries
PPG's Pure Performance interior paints contain "more than trace amounts" of potentially harmful VOCs, the FTC found.


“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.

If 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].” 

The zero-VOC claims remained on both companies’ websites as of Saturday (Oct. 27).

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.

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.

Finally, the orders require the companies to send letters to retailers, ordering them to remove all ads for the paints that have “zero VOC” claims and putting corrective stickers on paint cans that now carry 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

The FTC is cracking down on greenwashing because “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 new guidelines are summarized here.

Coating Makers Respond

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.

PPG said that its Pure Performance interior base paints do not contain VOCs, and that 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.


Tagged categories: Enforcement; Green coatings; Marketing; PPG; Sherwin-Williams

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