- Beth Timmins
- Finance and Business Reporter, BBC News
Many of us try to reduce our environmental impact and for some that means choosing brands and companies that are environmentally friendly. But how can you verify that companies are really as green as they seem?
The call greenwashing or washed of image verde (labeling something as green or sustainable when it is not) misleads consumers into thinking that they are helping the planet by choosing those products.
Companies must be held accountable for how they advertise their services or products. But what should consumers take into account to detect the so-called eco-imposition?
1. False statements or vague language
The UK Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) says this is the reason it receives the most complaints.
In 2019, the ASA banned an advertisement from Ryanair claiming it was the airline with the lowest emissions in Europe, but did not provide sufficient evidence to support the claim.
And a Hyundai ad, claiming that one of its cars “cleans the air,” was also deemed misleading by the ASA.
This category also includes products whose ingredients are described as “natural”, “organic” or “ecological” when only some of them are.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at Which?, a publication dedicated to the same topic, pointed out that, to believe the claims of the manufacturers, we must look for a secondary source of information and authorized to endorse them.
“Think about the big picture. For example, can environmental claims made on a non-recyclable plastic bottle be taken seriously?”
2. Pictures of nature or “green” words
Companies often use labels such as “eco”, “sustainable” and “green” to make the business appear environmentally friendly, but they rarely refer to scientific standards.
The website Amazing Cleaners o Incredible Cleaners, from the HDS group, advertised their services as “100% ecological.” The ASA accepted a complaint received in this regard when it discovered that there was no evidence any on what is stated on said website.
And an advertisement for the drink Alpro almonds for a misleading environmental claim. The ad said it was “good for the planet” and described it as: “Your recipe for a healthier planet.”
Alpro’s defense was that consumers would understand that the slogan referred to plant-based products in general having a lower environmental impact.
The ASA stated that while it understood that the almonds used by Alpro were not obtained from plantations with a negative environmental impact, such statements they should be clearer.
There are fashion companies that promote their garments made from “sustainable” fabrics, even if the rest of your clothing line is bad for the environment.
This is the case for companies that claim to be environmentally friendly, but without taking into account the emissions from the supply chain of a coal-fired factory abroad that is used to make part of a product.
Other industries have faced this as well. As early as 2007, the ASA ruled against the oil multinational Shell for an ad saying it was using “residual carbon dioxide” in its plants. The regulatory agency found that the amount used for that purpose was only a small fraction of its emissions.
In another example, Edward Bulmer, a paint brand, claimed that theirs was “the greenest on the market,” but did not highlight the fact that it contained several ingredients that were harmful to the environment.
4. WithCareful with carbon offsets
A government, business or individual may attempt to offset its own emissions by removing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by other means. The process is called carbon offsetting or carbon offset.
But environmental groups argue that this is sidestepping the question of actually reducing emissions.
David Barmes, an economist with the campaign group Positive Money, says that offset is the most popular form of green wash.
“It is riddled with fraud and allows companies to claim that they are meeting emissions targets while continuously releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”
“The objective of the compensations is allow these corporations to continue issuing with impunity and that governments affirm that they are meeting their objectives, “added Barmes.
5. Who is the final owner?
Larger companies or conglomerates with a high environmental impact often buy smaller brands to attract environmentally conscious customers who, otherwise, would not have opted for your products.
So knowing who the ultimate owner of a business is could be important if you want to know its full environmental impact.
Kimberly Nicholas, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability at Lund University in Sweden, told the BBC that the most important thing is that companies commit to removing fossil fuels from every part of their supply chains.
“Customers should avoid spending money on products from companies connected to the financing or production of fossil fuels.”
“Without this action, any other claim is useless.”
6. Organic products that are part of a range that is not
Some companies market environmentally friendly products, but they omit information about the impact of their other products.
An ad for the food company Quorn was banned because of the way it described a product’s carbon footprint.
The ASA noted that the announcement it did not clarify what it was being measured against the claimed decrease in carbon footprint and therefore consumers would not know what the basis for the reduction was.
Sue Davies from the magazine Which?, say what lack of transparency is a key indicator that the company does not have a totally positive environmental impact.
“If you’re having trouble finding environmental information about a product, brand or service, take it as a red flag,” Davies said.
“Companies that have something to hide, or don’t have good stories to tell, often make it difficult for consumers to verify their green credentials.”
7. Is the product and its packaging recyclable?
There are items whose plastic packaging is said to be “recyclable” but which is not really easy to recycle.
In 2018, McDonald’s announced that it was ditching single-use plastic straws at its restaurants and replacing them with paper ones.
But the following year he was charged with green facelift when it was revealed that the new straws were not recyclable.
In 2019, ASA claimed that Ancol Pet Products, a pet products company, was misleading its customers by advertising dog waste bags as biodegradable.
The ASA determined that these bags did not degrade under the conditions existing in landfills or incineration chambers, their most likely destinations.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.