Sustainable, eco-friendly, environmentally-friendly, green—the more popular conscious shopping becomes, the more names products seem to have to label their products. What’s in a name? It turns out… a lot. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates claims related to sustainability in order to ensure that companies can’t make deceptive marketing claims related to a product’s sustainability or environmental impact (a practice commonly referred to as “greenwashing”). 


Anyone can read the guidance for green labeling in the FTC’s Green Guides. But for most people, reading government guidance is some combination of a snoozefest and a headache. Lucky for you, we’re just the type of people who enjoy reading government guidance and translating the legalese so it’s easy to understand. 


Here’s a quick primer to help you understand what product labels like “recyclable,” “made with renewable materials,” and “free of” mean. 

Sustainably Terms Commonly Used in Furniture Labeling

As an office furniture retailer, our top priority is to help customers make informed buying decisions. We’ve put together a list of environmental claims you might find on furniture products. The FTC Green Guides provide guidance on claims related to sustainability. Here’s how they determine what a furniture manufacturer can and cannot say about their products. 


(This guidance also applies to companies and products outside of furniture.)

What Does ‘Free of’ Mean?

According to the FTC Green Guides, a product labeled “free of” may actually contain a level of that substance. To qualify for “free of” labeling, a product must:

  1. Not have more than trace amounts of that substance or “background levels” of the substance. 

  2. Not contain an amount of the substance that can cause harm to consumers. (This applies where consumers tend to associate harm with a substance at a higher level). 

  3. Not include any intentional addition of the substance. 


When “free of” labeling is considered deceptive:

  1. To label a product “free of” a substance that is not in the product if that substance has never been associated with the product category (For example, it would be weird to label an office chair “free of uranium” because you would never find uranium in office chairs)

  2. To label a product “free of” one substance, but it contains another substance that “poses a similar environmental risk”

What Does ‘Nontoxic’ Mean?

Products labeled “nontoxic” must have credible scientific evidence that the product is safe for humans and the environment. 

What Does ‘Recyclable’ Mean? 

Recyclable labeling can be used on products that can be recycled at recycling facilities that are available to consumers. If a product requires a recycling facility that is unavailable to 60% of consumers or communities, companies must qualify recycling claims per the FTC Green Guides. The lower the level of availability, the more a company must qualify its recyclability claim. 


What does it mean if a product says, “This product may not be recyclable in your area”? It means that recycling facilities for a product are unavailable to at least 60% of consumers or communities. 


What does it mean if a product says, “This product is recyclable only in the few communities that have appropriate recycling programs”? Pretty much what the label says. The FTC states that this label should be used when recycling facilities for a given product are only available only to a few consumers. 

What Does ‘Recycled Content’ Mean?

Recycled content labeling refers only to materials that “have been recovered or diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process or after consumer use,” according to the FTC Green Guides. Companies should qualify how much of a product is made from recycled materials. For example, you might see a label that says, “Made from 10% recycled material” or “Made from 40% recycled material.” Products that include used, reconditioned, or remanufactured parts must be clearly labeled to avoid deceptive marketing. 

What Does ‘Made With Renewable Materials’ Mean?

Renewable materials are natural resources that can be replenished to replace the resources used in a finite period. In the Green Guides, the FTC recommends that companies specify what materials are used to make a product (and how much of the product that material accounts for) in order to avoid deceptive marketing. One example is: “Our flooring is made from 100% bamboo, which grows at the same rate, or faster than we use it.” 

Understanding Additional Green Labeling

We’re committed to helping you understand eco-friendly labels no matter what you’re shopping for. You won’t usually find these labels on furniture products, but you may come across them on other products.

What Does ‘Compostable’ Mean?

To claim that a product is compostable, a company needs credible scientific evidence that all the materials can be safely broken down into compost. Compostable labels must indicate whether it’s the product or the packaging that’s compostable. If an item needs to be composted in a commercial compost facility, that must be indicated on the label. 

What Does ‘Degradable’ Mean?

A company must be able to prove that the “entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal,” according to the FTC Green Guides. For solid waste products, the FTC considers a “reasonably short period of time” to mean 1 year.


One additional note: You can’t make claims about items that are “destined” for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities because those products will not degrade within a year. 

What Do ‘Ozone-Safe’ and ‘Ozone-Friendly’ Mean?

The FTC Green Guides do not define what qualifies as ozone-safe or ozone-friendly. Instead, this label is defined as a negative. The FTC states, “It is deceptive to misrepresent that a product is ozone-friendly or safe for the ozone layer or atmosphere.”

What Does ‘Refillable’ Mean? 

To make a “refillable” claim, a company must provide a way to refill the package. 

What Does ‘Made With Renewable Energy’ Mean?

To qualify as “made with renewable energy,” 1 of 2 things needs to be true:

  1. A product and its packaging were manufactured using only renewable energy sources (or almost entirely using renewable energy sources). 

  2. Renewable energy certificates (RECs) match the fossil fuels that were used. 


What doesn’t count as “made with renewable energy”?

  • Energy is derived from fossil fuels (unless a company purchases renewable energy certificates (RECs) to match energy use).

  • A company generates renewable energy but sells RECs for all the energy produced. 


Other Sustainable Shopping Resources

In addition to FTC guidance, there are 3rd-party agencies that provide certifications that can help guide your conscious shopping. Look for:


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