“Green” buzzwords about products are everywhere. Clothing, cosmetics, household items, and food are commonly described as “green,” “sustainably produced,” or “natural.”
Although they appear to be making environmental claims, there are no established definitions for these terms in consumer law.
So what can consumers do to find their way through a forest of green claims?
Ireland’s national consumer agency, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, advises consumers not to take environmental claims at face value.
Instead, he tells people to examine how they are supported.
It also advises retailers to help consumers by providing evidence to support environmental claims and by adopting “reliable and recognizable certifications, seals of approval and labeling schemes” such as the EU Ecolabel.
But it’s for hard-core consumers, as unsubstantiated environmental claims are widespread.
The commission said it participated in a European Commission review of such claims last year along with other EU consumer agencies.
Across the EU, the review found that of 344 green claims examined on clothing, cosmetics and household items, almost 60% were unsupported and 42% were potentially in breach of consumer law.
“The cost involved in misleading advertising has never been higher,” John Gibbons, an environmental commentator, told Prime Time.
“We are in an era where we need strong and urgent climate action. Instead, what we often get is misleading claims through clever advertising.”
The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), the advertising industry’s watchdog, said that when it comes to green issues, its Advertising Standards Code protects consumers.
The code only allows unqualified environmental claims to be made if it can be proven that the “product will not cause environmental harm.”
Alternatively, traders can make a qualified environmental claim if they can demonstrate “environmental improvement over competitors or their own previous products.”
Consumers can, and do, complain to the ASAI if they are concerned that retailers are not following the advertising code.
For example, last year the authority asked Toyota to remove an advertisement that read: “The car brand voted best for tackling climate change in Ireland is also the country’s best-selling car.”
The authority ruled against this announcement because the claim that Toyota was voted “best” for tackling climate change was unsubstantiated and unsourced.
It found that, in an unpublished survey, 10% of respondents had mentioned Toyota when asked which car brand had done the most to address climate change. Other car brands were mentioned by lower percentages of respondents.
Toyota told Prime Time in a statement that the ad has been corrected and republished with the word “most” instead of “best.”
“We would in no way deliberately attempt to mislead consumers and strongly reject any suggestion that we would,” the statement said.
The authority also ruled against Mitsubishi Ireland in 2019 following a complaint about an advertisement for its Outlander plug-in hybrid vehicle.
The ad described the vehicle as “an electric car with 4×4 control and a range of more than 600 km”.
The authority found the advertisement to be misleading because it described the car as an “electric car” with such a range without making it clear that it was actually a hybrid electric vehicle, implying that the range was for battery electric only.
The ad referred to “electric” five times without qualification, the authority said.
Mitsubishi said that as soon as the original complaint was brought to their attention, the ad was “removed from circulation” and that it instructed dealers “that it should not be used.”
The car brand told Prime Time it would “never intentionally mislead consumers.”
Similarly, in 2020, the UK Advertising Standards Authority found that Ryanair’s claim to be “Europe’s lowest emitting airline” was misleading and that the evidence provided was insufficient to demonstrate the basis for the claim. affirmation.
Ryanair told Prime Time that it was “both disappointed and surprised that the ASA issued this ruling” as it believed it had “fully complied with the advertising rules”.
The only problem with this monitoring system for misleading claims, according to critics, is that it leaves the burden of complaint on consumers.
“Companies can publish all kinds of material and then it is left in the hands of the public, at their expense and for their own account, to trap the industry,” Gibbons said.
Orla Twomey, ASAI’s executive director, said it also monitors ads and issues advice when necessary. Although they do this annually, they have not yet focused on ecological claims.
Ms Twomey said the authority is currently testing software that can detect certain phrases in advertisements, greatly increasing its ability to detect misleading claims in real time.
However, even when certain terms are identified, there is an additional problem: the scientific basis of many claims is questioned and many ecological terms do not have a clear definition.
The European Commission is also proposing to introduce stricter consumer rules on green claims through an update to its Unfair Commercial Practices Directive.
“One of the things we’re doing is working with our European colleagues to assess how we assess sustainability and environmental claims,” said Ms Twomey.
He is hopeful that advertising watchdogs and advertisers themselves will get more guidance.
One thing that is not currently defined in the advertising code is the term “carbon neutral.” Various companies are using this when they sell fossil fuel related products or services.
The authority ruled in favor of petrol station retailer Applegreen over advertisements saying its PowerPlus diesel offered “carbon-neutral driving”.
He accepted Applegreen’s evidence that the use of the phrase “carbon neutral driving” did not mean that it was a carbon neutral fuel. Rather, the emissions generated by driving were being validly offset by a carbon reduction program in Africa, which was independently verified by an accredited company.
In a statement, Applegreen told Prime Time that “PowerPlus fuel is not a carbon neutral fuel and is not sold as such. We offer certified carbon neutral driving.”
This is accomplished with an “independently verified tuning program,” he said.
The carbon credits, he continued, come from a clean water initiative in Africa, which “reduces the need to boil drinking water, which saves thousands of trees from burning annually and therefore reduces emissions by about a 60%”.
It also noted that it had invested in an Irish forestry program alongside its carbon-neutral driving initiative, but does not take this into account as part of its compensation calculations.
Gibbons is critical of companies that sell fossil fuels while also making green claims.
“They want to have both. They want to sell fossil fuels and be seen as green,” she said.
Many of these companies use carbon offsetting to justify their claims, balancing carbon emissions with investments in sustainable projects, which seek to reduce carbon by an equivalent amount.
“We have a whole global offset market, a very profitable market of billions of euros in offset sales.”
Buying offsets only adds to “more confusion,” Gibbons said. “What we must not say out loud is that we have to reduce everything we do.”
Mark Carlin, managing director of Coillte, said the scenic agency, which manages 440,000 hectares of forest in Ireland, welcomes investment from companies trying to improve their ESG, or environmental, sustainability and governance credentials.
But he noted that investing in Coillte’s native tree planting program should not be seen as a carbon offset.
“It is important that the companies that are investing with us are able to report on their environmental and social benefits. But what is really important is that it is not an exemption from emission reductions.”
For example, Coillte only measures its trees’ carbon uptake after 10 years of growth, as most native species mature over many decades.
In the absence of EU consumer rules on environmental claims in advertising, which have been a long time coming, the French and Dutch governments have gone ahead and introduced stronger consumer protection.
But such rules can only go so far, given the complexity of environmental claims.
Are ad watchdogs equipped to conduct rigorous evaluations? ASAI said that, so far, it has not needed to seek outside scientific advice on climate-related claims.
“We are not judging climate change per se,” said Ms Twomey. “We look at the information that has been provided to us and make a judgment on that.”
“We have a lot of experience within the organization, although not climate experience, but in evaluating evidence. So evidence is evidence.”