40% of firms’ environmental claims could be misleading

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Andrii Yalanskyi
Getty/Andrii Yalanskyi

Related tags: eco-friendly, Carbon label, label claims

Four in 10 websites appear to be using ‘greenwashing’ tactics that could be considered misleading and therefore potentially break consumer law, according to an investigation by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN).

The ICPEN looked at nearly 500 websites internationally promoting products and services across a range of sectors, including food, clothes and cosmetics.

It found that four in 10 of these websites appeared to be using tactics that could be considered misleading. These included:

  • Vague claims and unclear language including terms such as ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ or reference to ‘natural products’ without adequate explanation or evidence of the claims.
  • Own brand eco logos and labels not associated with an accredited organisation.
  • Hiding or omitting certain information, such as a product’s pollution levels, to appear more eco-friendly.

Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, which led the sweep, said: “Too many websites appear to be pushing misleading claims onto consumers, which means that companies offering products with a genuine environmental benefit are not getting the customers they deserve. People should be able to easily choose between those companies who are doing the right thing for the environment and those who are not.”

Growing trend of greenwashing

According to the European Commission, greenwashing has increased as consumers increasingly seek to buy environmentally sound products.

A recent Consumer Market Monitoring Survey showed 78% of consumers in Europe found the likely environmental impact of household appliances very important or fairly important when making their choice.

Environmental concerns among consumers are particularly prevalent in the food and beverage sector. Two thirds of consumers are open to changing their eating habits for the environment, according to the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, with over half of respondents saying that sustainability concerns have some influence (42.6%) or a lot of influence (16.6%) on their eating habits.

Enforcement authorities in Europe, working under the umbrella of the ICPEN, examined 344 seemingly dubious claims in more detail and found that:

  • In more than half of the cases, the trader did not provide sufficient information for consumers to judge the claim's accuracy.
  • In 37% of cases, the claim included vague and general statements such as “conscious”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable” which aimed to convey the unsubstantiated impression to consumers that a product had no negative impact on the environment.
  • Moreover, in 59% of cases the trader had not provided easily accessible evidence to support its claim.

Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, said: “More and more people want to live a green life, and I applaud companies that strive to produce eco-friendly products or services. However, there are also unscrupulous traders out there, who pull the wool over consumers' eyes with vague, false or exaggerated claims. The Commission is fully committed to empowering consumers in the green transition and fighting greenwashing.”

Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) reprimanded a series of firms in the UK for making misleading or confusing sustainability claims in adverts. In April a Burger King advert was banned for falsely claiming its new plant-based ‘Rebel Whopper’ burger was suitable for vegetarian and vegan diners. In September, a Quorn advert was ruled to be misleading over not clearly explained its environmental claims​.  

CMA examining if ‘eco-friendly’ claims are misleading

The CMA is in the process of updating its green marketing guidance for businesses in order to clamp down on greenwashing.

“We intend to publish guidance for UK businesses later this year to help them support the transition to lower carbon economy without misleading consumers,”​ a spokesperson told FoodNavigator.

If the CMA finds evidence that businesses are misleading consumers, then it will take appropriate action, the spokesperson added.

Based on its own research and evidence from other enforcers, the CMA is concerned that this surge in demand for green products and services could incentivise some businesses to make misleading, vague or false claims about the sustainability or environmental impact of the things they sell.

The CMA said examples of misleading behaviour could include exaggerating the positive environmental impact of a product or service; using complex or jargon-heavy language; or implying that items are eco-friendly through packaging and logos when this is not true.

The CMA will also look into the rising trend of carbon labelling. There are now currently almost 460 eco labels globally, with proponents claiming they can help consumers choose genuinely environmentally friendly products​. Sceptics, however, suggest they are difficult to compare and simply allow more companies more opportunities to greenwash.  

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