The European Commission is expected to take decisive action soon against companies suspected of being involved in greenwashing; in other words, conning everyone by labelling or advertising products and services with misleading eco-friendly information.
Greenwashing has taken hold as more and more people have become concerned about the environment and global warming. Naturally, they want to buy genuinely eco-friendly products.
As this honest trade has accelerated in recent years, so has the number of cheats cashing in with overstated claims or downright lies. The sole aim of greenwashers is to make a profit. They are not interested in helping the environment.
A decisive plan by the European Commission will be welcomed by the Portuguese Consumer Authority (DGC), which has been working to raise awareness and to educate both professionals and consumers about the risks of greenwashing.
For the last two years, there has been growing concern in Portugal about the lack of conceptual uniformity across the EU, which would provide a reference or common basis for legitimising green claims.
“Organic” and “all natural” are the kinds of foods we want to buy in our local supermarket without fuss and bother in this confusing world. But most of us don’t have the time or expertise to investigate the truth of what is being claimed. The reality is that consumers are sometimes being addressed honestly and sometimes not. Hopefully, the EU is soon going to help.
The process of greenwashing involves placing on packaging or in advertisements claims that may seem straightforward, but which are actually vague and unverifiable. Another trick is to publish an image of a product with a beautiful environmental background.
EU regulators have been studying this greenwashing phenomenon for some time, but it is complicated. For one thing, greenwashing has no legal definition.
Fortunately, there is now the EU plan to expose the guilty companies and at least dent their reputations and correct their future business activities.
Portugal and all 26 other countries within the union may have to ensure that any claims made by companies about their products are accurately backed by scientific evidence.
Some brands market their products as “green” to lead buyers to believe the products are conforming to high environmental standards. Among the wording shoppers should be careful of are “climate neutral”, “carbon neutral” and “100% C02 compensated”. As the Bloomberg news organisation recently described it, “such claims are a free pass to continue down a damaging environmental road”.
It is easy for a company to say “our product is better for the environment than before”, but is it? In what way, and who apart from the company says so?
Another favourite reassuring expression used by greenwashers is that the plastics in their products or packaging are “biodegradable” or “compostable”, meaning it will not contribute to the world’s massive plastic waste problem. But are such assurances followed by even a hint that this is really so?
While greenwashing on its own does not have a legal definition, government enforcement actions and civil suits have been proceeding through security enforcement regulators and consumer protection legislation.
The global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, for example, reported on a campaign by Ryanair claiming to be the “lowest CO2 emissions airline”. This was referred to the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK. The weakness of the claim was shown to be that it was based on a study conducted nearly a decade earlier and it failed to sufficiently support the claim.
It is thought that under the EU draft plan, companies that want to emphasise positive environmental or climate change aspects of their products will have to also highlight any detrimental effects.
In the United States, action is being taken at both federal and under security laws at state government levels. Many similar actions are continuing to be taken in many other countries around the world against very doubtful eco-friendly claims.
Hopefully, truth will prevail.
COMMENT By Len Port
Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: algarvenewswatch.blogspot.pt