What is Greenwashing?

This article looks at the “greenwashing”, what guidance is in-place for “green claims” & examples of recent “greenwashing” & what can be done to report greenwashing.

There are so many statements made about products in advertising, on their packaging and on other promotional materials that you wonder whether they are real claims especially when they are about “green claims” about the product’s environmental and sustainability properties.

That’s where we, whether as personal consumers or looking to make purchases on behalf of our organisations, could do with some help to understand and trust “green claims”.

What is “greenwashing”?

Greenwashing Is a play on the term “whitewashing”, where misleading information is used to gloss over a bad situation or behaviour. Greenwashing is conveying a false impression or misleading information that imply that an organisation or its products are environmentally friendly or sustainable.

The outcome from greenwashing can, ultimately, have an overall negative impact on our purchasing and buying decisions as it can lead to poorly informed decisions and confusion, distrust and disengagement in those organisations and products that are making a measurable, positive environmental performance.

An example that brings greenwashing into sharp relief is that actions of Volkswagen in their promotion of their diesel cars as being environmentally friendly, while intentionally programming their turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing, which caused the vehicles’ Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)  output to meet US and other national standards during regulatory testing, while they emitted up to 40 times more NOx  in real-world driving.

How to prevent “greenwashing”?

The UK’s Green Claims Code” providing guidance on environmental claims on goods and services was published by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in September 2021 and is available to help businesses understand how to communicate their green credentials while reducing the risk of misleading shoppers. It is the “carrot” in a “carrot and stick” approach to regulating “green claims” and to prevent “greenwashing”.

Each principle is illustrated by sections with an explanation of what each principle means & a reflective question “Before making a claim, you should ask yourself” to give a clear understanding of the principles as well as the tools to evaluate “green claims” against the Code.

Any organisation or individual looking to make a green claim or to understand more about gree claims in the UK would benefit from obtaining a copy of the CMA guidance on environmental claims on goods and services.

What actions are taken against “greenwashing”?

At the time of the publication of the Green Claims Code, the CMA gave a clear signal to the marketplace that the CMA would carry out a full review of misleading green claims early in 2022 and stood ready to take action against offending firms. This is the “stick” approach to regulating green claims.

Since that time, three green claims have been published in 2022, which have been ruled as misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Firstly, Pepsi Lipton ran a poster campaign for Lipton Ice Tea featured headline text which stated “DELICIOUSLY REFRESHING, 100% RECYCLED*”. The asterisk linked to small text at the bottom of the poster that stated, “Bottle made from recycled plastic, excludes cap and label”. The ad included pack shots of two Lipton Ice Tea bottles, with a recycling logo and the text “I’M 100% RECYCLED PLASTIC” visible.

The ASA upheld the complaint as it considered that consumers would understand the claim “100% RECYCLED*” alongside images of the bottle with the label and cap to mean that all components of the Lipton Ice Tea bottle (i.e. the bottle, cap and label) were made entirely from recycled materials.

The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation), 3.9 (Qualification) and 11.3 (Environmental claims) and must not appear again in the complained form. The ASA informed Pepsi Lipton International to ensure their advertising did not state or imply that their product packaging was made from 100% recycled material where it contained components that did not meet the criteria and that qualifications did not counter the overall impression made by the ad.

Although, I have not seen a more recent ad, it is clear that Pepsi Lipton have learnt from the complaint as the bottle has been redesigned to include a cap that is recyclable even if the label continues to be nonrecyclable according to the On-Pack Recycling Label.

The second ruling related to Two TV ads, a paid-for Facebook post, a paid-for Twitter post and two press ads for Oatly, an oat drink company. The complaint has a six complaint issues.

For brevity, I will only look at the first complaint issue, the TV ad featured on on-screen statement that “Oatly generates 73% less CO2e vs. milk, calculated from grower to grocer. To verify see http://www.oatly.com/helpdad”.

However, the ASA considered consumers would understand the claim “Oatly generates 73% less CO2e vs. milk” to mean that all Oatly products generated 73% less CO2e compared to any type of cows’ milk. The expectation was to see evidence relating to the CO2e produced for all Oatly products and types of cows’ milk. However, there was only evidence for the CO2e generated in the production of Oatly Barista Edition oat drink and whole cow’s milk.

The ASA upheld the complaint and concluded that because the evidence was not sufficient to support the claim as consumers would understand it, the two TV ads were misleading as they breached BCAP Code rules (3.1 Misleading advertising), 3.9 (Substantiation) and 9.2 (Environmental claims).

The third and final case is the Video on Demand ad, paid-for YouTube and TV ad for Innocent drinks campaign entitled ‘Little Drinks, Big Dreams’, which gave a recycling-focused messaging, despite Innocent’s use of single-use plastic products for their bottles and appeared in three forms.

Whilst, the ads contained aspirational messaging, including imagery of people recycling, choosing natural foods and choosing to “reduce, reuse recycle”, it was considered that many consumers would interpret the overall presentation of the ad to mean that purchasing Innocent products was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact especially though the stark imaging of damaged planet and brown food contrasted with imagery of the planet being ‘fixed up’ whilst Innocent drinks are being consumed alongside images of Innocent products, depicting people and animals relaxing in a green environment.

However, we considered that many consumers would interpret the overall presentation of the ad to mean that purchasing Innocent products was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact.

It was not demonstrated that their products had a net positive environmental impact over their full lifecycles. Indeed, the ASA cited that the drinks bottles included non-recycled plastic and that the extraction of raw materials and subsequent processing of those materials in order to produce the bottle would have a negative impact on the environment.

The ASA upheld the compliant and that the ads were misleading because the ads implied that purchasing Innocent products was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact when that was not the case. They breached BCAP or CAP Code rules for the three TV ads under 3.1 (Misleading advertising), 3.9 (Substantiation) and the first ad under the BCAP code rules 9.2, 9.3 and 9.4 (Environmental claims) & the second and third ads under the CAP code rules 11.1, 11.2 and 11.3 (Environmental claims).

How to report greenwashing?

As a personal or business consumer, the ASA provides an opportunity to report an environmental concerns about an ad that makes misleading claims about the environmental impact or credentials of a product, brand or service, or which depicts or condones environmentally harmful practices.

You can report greenwashing on the ASA website here

So, to summarise:

The use of the CMA’s Green Code” to regulate green claims is clearly starting to show that it has “teeth” as a regulatory mechanism to stamp out “greenwashing” and to improve the content of environmental and sustainability messages for consumers.

I can, only, hope that it provides an opportunity for a future where consumers, whether personal or organisations, can recognise that green claims have been made that are robust and allow informed judgements for our purchasing decisions.

If you enjoyed this article, you should check out our YouTube Channel – EMSmastery, where you can watch our videos, such as our video accompanying this article on What is Greenwashing? and subscribe in our YouTube channel for new videos released each week.

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