Greenwashing claims: it’s not easy, being green

Marketing your business on its environmental credentials is a minefield, Andrea Lockerbie argues; overclaim or exaggerate and you could be left open to accusations of greenwashing, which doesn’t clean off easily.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines greenwashing as: “behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”

Claims of products and services being good for the environment are increasingly under the spotlight, with big names such as HSBC and Innocent drinks having recently being named and shamed for their “green credentials.”

One sector that’s under particular scrutiny is fashion, with many brands keen on better promoting their products to their environmentally conscious customers.

In September, the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) in the Netherlands ruled that fashion giant H&M had made misleading sustainability claims, including using vague, unclear or absolute terms and categorising products as sustainable without defining the criteria.

In the majority of cases, we’ve found that ads lack sufficient evidence to back up claims they’re making.

The ASA’s senior media relations officer, says: “In the majority of cases, we’ve found that ads lack sufficient evidence to back up claims they’re making. We’ve also found that businesses can sometimes exaggerate a product’s green credentials.

“Overall, we’ve found that most advertisers aren’t intentionally aiming to mislead, but instead are not always taking into account all the necessary information and data before making environmental claims.”

The ASA makes sure ads across the UK media stick to the Advertising Codes, written by the Committee of Advertising Practice, which includes sections on environmental claims.

It has a close working relationship with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which introduced the Green Claims Code in September 2021 to help businesses understand and comply with their existing obligations under consumer protection law when making environmental claims.

The introduction of the code followed a global review of randomly selected websites that found 40% of green claims made online could be misleading.

Like its counterpart in the Netherlands, the CMA is also taking a close look at the fashion sector. It found that several companies were creating the impression their products were better for the environment, with little or no information about the basis of these claims. In July, it announced it was investigating ASOS, Boohoo and George at Asda.

Should we find these companies are using misleading eco claims, we won’t hesitate to take enforcement action.

Sarah Cardell, CMA’s interim chief executive, said at the time: “Should we find these companies are using misleading eco claims, we won’t hesitate to take enforcement action – through the courts if necessary.”

Its concerns include whether statements and language used are too vague, what criteria are used to define sustainable items and the information omitted from communications with consumers.

Alan Wheeler, chief executive of the Textile Recycling Association, said: “I think most people operating in this area are now wanting to do the right thing, but it is an absolute minefield and brands and retailers need to be extremely careful.

“I have seen adverts on TV from fashion brands highlighting what their future aims or ambitions are around sustainability, and they have not been clear about whether their products are actually sustainable right now. I understand that such practices are in breach of the code.

“For consumers, the message is quite simple: the most sustainable clothing item is the one that is not produced in the first place. But accepting that everyone needs to wear clothing, the message should be ‘buy less, use second hand, keep for longer and donate for reuse or recycling when you no longer want it.’”

He also acknowledged that there is still much work to do in developing and investing in technology and systems to improve textile recycling applications and markets to make the sector more sustainable.

We are about to publish a new e-learning module on environmental claims.

King added that the ASA has done a lot to ensure businesses are aware of its policies around green claims, including running seminars and providing online guidance. It also provides a free copy advice service and pre-publication advice on any non-broadcast ads or campaigns, at any stage.

“We can look at concepts, imagery and copy – or just discuss an idea or answer a question. This helps advertisers establish any potential issues before taking ad ideas forward,” King said.

“We’ve also set up a dedicated web space with resources to help advertisers get their claims right. We are about to publish a new e-learning module on environmental claims.”

Greenwashing: prevention, not cure

So, what approach can businesses take to avoid greenwashing in the first place? George Ames, director of client services at Forster Communications, said: “The starting point for this is that campaigns and communications strategies must be informed by business plans, commitment and action – and not be standalone initiatives.”

He suggested a helpful gauge is whether “the communications outweigh the action.”

“It is important that people are very clear and proportionate about how they communicate their tactics and short-term initiatives versus longer-term ambitions. Setting out the ambitions, goals, pathway, mid-points, and reporting is crucial. As crucial, is also being clear on the challenges, the difficulties and how and where more work is needed.”

Ames believes the Green Claims Code is important, but he said he can also see how “some of the checks and balances of the Green Claims Code can risk being overlooked by trying to take often quite complex messages down to a point-of-sale, on-packet message.”

The “task of boiling down to sound bites” is particularly an area where people could come unstuck, Ames said.

Whenever an ad is making a green claim, there needs to be robust evidence behind it.

He also emphasised the importance of calling out greenwashing, and to keep Forster on the right track, the organisation uses five rules of engagement. Ames said adhering to these rules could help businesses that may be in a state of paralysis with communicating their green credentials, because of fear of stepping into greenwash territory.

King added: “It’s absolutely acceptable to highlight any green credentials a product or business might have, but businesses need to ensure they’re not misleading consumers. Whenever an ad is making a green claim, there needs to be robust evidence behind it.”

Businesses need to take into account all relevant factors before making claims, including the full life-cycle of products and having quantifiable data proving any assertions. Ultimately, green claims in ads need to be accurate, informative and supported by evidence.

Marketers should be wary of making absolute claims and should use qualified claims or comparative claims such as “cleaner” and “greener.”

Focus on greenwashing is only going to increase, and this autumn the ASA is commissioning consumer research into waste claims such as “recyclable” and “biodegradable.” Once it has the findings, the ASA will undertake a proactive review of waste claims in 2023.

Honesty, transparency and clarity should keep businesses on track and away from the murky waters of greenwash.

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