No more ‘bee-friendly juice’ or ‘carbon neutral bananas’? Commission proposes ban on misleading environmental claims

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

The proposed criteria would legally bind companies to respect minimum norms on how they substantiate ‘green claims’ as well as how they communicate them. GettyImages/Tanaonte
The proposed criteria would legally bind companies to respect minimum norms on how they substantiate ‘green claims’ as well as how they communicate them. GettyImages/Tanaonte

Related tags greenwashing carbon neutral environmental claims Eco labels

In a move against greenwashing, the European Commission is proposing common criteria to stamp out vague, misleading, or unsubstantiated environmental claims.

This week, the Commission proposed common criteria against greenwashing, targeting environmental claims such as ‘bee-friendly juices’ or ‘carbon neutral bananas’.

Too often, such claims are made with ‘no evidence and justification whatsoever’, according to Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the European Green Deal. This, he explained, opens the door to greenwashing and puts companies making genuinely sustainable products at a disadvantage.

“Many Europeans want to contribute to a more sustainable world through their purchases. They need to be able to trust the claims made. With this proposal, we give consumers the reassurance that when something is sold as green, it is actually green.”

Backing up claims with scientific evidence

The proposed criteria would legally bind companies to respect minimum norms on how they substantiate ‘green claims’ as well as how they communicate them.

Before companies communicate ‘green claims’ – with the exception of those covered by existing EU rules such as the organic food logo – they would need to be independently verified and proven with scientific evidence.

Companies would be required to identify the environmental impacts that are actually relevant to their product, while also identifying any possible trade-offs, to give a ‘full and accurate picture’. Promoting requirements imposed by law as a distinctive feature would also be banned.

The new proposal was informed by research conducted by the Commission in 2020, which found that more than half (53.3%) of examined environmental claims across the bloc were vague, misleading or unfounded. A total of 40% were unsubstantiated.

These findings were confirmed by the Consumer Protection Cooperation authorities in the same year, which revealed that in 57.5% of cases, the trader did not provide sufficient elements allowing for judgement of the claim’s accuracy.

Following the ordinary legislative procedure, the Green Claims Directive proposal will now be subject to the approval of the European Parliament and the Council.

Half the time, authorities had difficulty identifying whether the claim covered the whole product or only one of its components. It was also unclear whether ‘green’ claims referred to the company or only certain products. In 75% of the cases, it was unclear which stage of the products lifecycle it covered.

greenwashing Francesco Scatena
In 2020, more than half of examined environmental claims were vague, misleading or unfounded. GettyImages/Francesco Scatena

This is likely having a negative impact on consumer trust in environmental claims, which the Commission described as being ‘quite low’. During the 2020 open public consultation, the general public did not agree with the statement that they trust environmental statements on products.

Making for a level playing field

As it stands, authorities are concerned that companies offering truly sustainable products are disadvantaged compared to those that do not. The Commission hopes the proposed laws, if enforced, will make for a level playing field.

For this reason, trade association FoodDrinkEurope, which represents food and beverage manufacturers, is backing the Commission’s objective. “We firmly support the purpose of the Commission’s proposal which is to avoid misleading information and greenwashing, while ensuring a level playing field among businesses,” ​an FDE spokesperson told this publication.

“Establishing harmonised requirements for the voluntary provision of environmental information will further motivate businesses to continue improving their environmental footprint and increase consumer trust.”

Its success, however, hinges on ‘legal certainty and clarity’, as well as alignment with international standards and the creation of simple and effective tools to enable informed consumer choices, suggested the spokesperson.

“As a Directive, the proposal leaves a lot of room for Member State interpretation, which could create different approaches and divergence for businesses trading across borders.

“It will be crucial to bring SMEs on board with proportionate rules and effective support systems.”

Has the Commission gone far enough?

Others who have welcomed the proposal suggest the Commission could have gone further in banning ‘climate-washing’ claims.

Changing Markets Foundation, for example, applauded the EU ‘striking a match’ for the ‘upcoming bonfire of certification schemes’. “We have warned such labels to become more robust and transparent for many years, so those who have dragged their heels are in for an unpleasant surprise,” ​said Changing Markets Foundation campaign manager George Harding-Rolls.

But the campaigning organisation is disappointed the Commission stopped short of banning generic climate claims, which it described a ‘prevalent greenwashing tactic’. “Our research showed that over half of dodgy climate claims in food rely on offsets of dubious quality, misleading consumers into believing they’re buying products with reduced emissions,” ​said Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at Changing Markets Foundation.

“The latest IPCC report​ showed that we must rapidly reduce emissions from all sectors, so it is a shame that the Green Claims Directive is not turbocharging real climate solutions by banning these false claims.”

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) also welcomed the Commissions’ ‘long-awaited’ proposal as an ‘important step’ towards greener and more sustainable consumption in the EU.

In the face of what BEUC describes as a ‘jungle of unregulated claims’, the Commission is ‘raising its game’ to fight greenwashing, putting an end to the ‘wild west’ of unsubstantiated green claims. “Preventing the problem instead of correcting it once the harm is done is an innovative move which will benefit consumers, who want to act sustainably and need reliable information to do so,” ​said BEUC director general Monique Goyens.

But BEUC takes issue with the proposal’s approach to carbon neutral claims, such as ‘CO2 neutral’. The Commission wants companies to distinguish between their own emission reduction efforts and use of carbon offsetting schemes. BEUC, on the other hand, wants carbon neutral claims banned outright​.

packaging gilaxia
Neither Changing Markets Foundation nor BEUC believe the Commission has gone far enough. GettyImages/filaxia

Ultimately, how effective the proposed law will be is dependent on its enforcement, Goyens suggested. “Authorities will have to heavily fine companies to clean up the market from misleading green claims and labels once and for all. It is also great news that consumer organisations will be able to bring collective complaints to court.”

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