1st February 2024

Opinion: Wiping out greenwashing

Consumers and enforcers alike should be wary of businesses making misleading ‘greenwashing’ claims that exaggerate their eco-friendly credentials.

By Adrian Simpson
Non-executive Director of CTSI and Policy Advisor at the British Retail Consortium
Any move to help consumers make clear, informed decisions that benefit the planet is to be encouraged

‘Ecodesign’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘carbon neutral’ are phrases that are likely to conjure up blue skies, green fields and clean air in consumers’ minds, and they often find their way onto product packaging. As Trading Standards professionals, we know that many unscrupulous businesses will try anything to get in touch with the inside of consumers’ wallets. Unfortunately, where there are pounds to be spent, there are misleading claims to be made and scams to be perpetrated, and for carbon-conscious consumers, this area is a minefield.

Retail guru Mary Portas told the audience at the British Retail Consortium’s summer school last year that “every pound spent is a vote for how we choose to live our lives”. This has never been truer for environmentally conscious consumers, who are looking to make sure that their pounds have a positive impact on the planet. According to a recent KPMG survey, more than half (54%) of consumers in the UK will stop buying from a company if it has been found to have misled in its sustainability claims.

The same survey found that a third (33%) of consumers are sceptical of ‘green’ labels and sustainability claims, whilst 28% admitted to struggling to know what products were green or sustainable due to inconsistent labelling. Consumers named the energy and clothing sectors as those they believe use misleading ‘greenwashing’ claims the most.

Ongoing investigations
The practices of businesses of all sizes have fallen under scrutiny; in 2022, various household name retailers came under the scrutiny of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA looked into the retailers’ statements, language and criteria used to make green claims.

The CMA has put together a green claims code which it hopes will “help businesses understand and comply with their existing obligations under consumer protection law when making environmental claims”. It hopes it will “give confidence to those businesses whose products are genuinely ‘green’ to provide consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions”. The code also looks into the life cycle of products and services. So, if a product’s production is less than green, but the product is sold as ‘green’, then this could breach the code.

Of course, should businesses choose to mislead consumers then the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 can be enforced. The CMA is very clear that businesses should be able to back up every green claim through evidence.

For businesses, the key takeaway from the code is the importance of evidence and record-keeping. Any move to help consumers make clear, informed decisions that benefit the planet is to be encouraged, but businesses must act responsibly.

Political appetite
The Green Claims Code, although it is guidance rather than regulation, is a series in a suite of measures taken by the government to make products and services greener. Not all of the momentum has been in a positive direction however. The most recent, and perhaps most controversial, move was made by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in September when the ban on the manufacturing of internal combustion cars was delayed from 2030 to 2035. This was attributed to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and the apparently high up-front costs of an electric car.
As expected there was a mixed reaction to this statement. Many of those in the vehicle manufacturing industry were disappointed, as their supply chain was prepared for electric vehicles to be the only cars available for purchase in 2030.

It’s not just cars that are becoming the target for greener products. In one of the first examples of divergence between UK and EU law, the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) announced new energy performance standards in January 2023. According to DBT, the “new proposals would introduce performance standards that are higher than regulations currently in place in either the US or EU”. Although this sounds like a good idea, it means that where there is divergence, different manufacturing, record-keeping and compliance procedures for manufacturers will be required. The knock-on effect for British consumers is that manufacturers or retailers could choose not to sell in the UK (as the cost to manufacture is too high, or the compliance procedures too difficult, costly or long), or that the costs of the products are higher, and the range of products potentially less.

Packaging is an area where there are established rules and regulations. A common frustration for consumers is ‘overpackaging’. Many of us will have seen the pictures on social media of large cardboard boxes used to deliver tiny items like USB sticks. As well as ‘reuse and recovery’ requirements, the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2015 state that packaging volume and weight must be the minimum amount to maintain the necessary levels of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer.

A relatively new area in the UK is the ‘right to repair’. Although well-known and favoured by consumers in the EU, it is not that well-known in the UK. You may have seen local repair cafes operated in village halls or community centres, but this ‘right to repair’ is essentially a requirement for manufacturers of certain white goods to provide spare parts and repair information for up to 10 years from the product’s discontinuation.

There are also additional rights for professional repairers — but who can call themself a ‘professional repairer’ is not defined in the Ecodesign Regulations 2021, from which derives the ‘right to repair’. This has led manufacturers to ponder over who they can supply certain spare parts and repair information to, and what would happen if a ‘professional repairer’ made a previously safe product ‘unsafe’ through a bodged repair.

Although currently limited in scope when it comes to products, the EU is already looking to the future, with phones and tablets perhaps being given a ‘right to repair’ at some point in the coming years.

Eco-friendly products and services are a hit with consumers and are now driving markets and industries from product design to disposal and re-use. Businesses need to make sure that they are on the right side of the law to keep their customers happy — and Trading Standards has a vital role to play in ensuring that the system works to the benefit of the planet we all call home.

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