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28 Jan 2021

40% of green claims made online could be misleading consumers

A global check of almost 500 websites found that four in 10 used vague or unsubstantiated claims, or hid or omitted information to appear more environmentally friendly

A sweep of global websites making environmental claims has found tactics that could be considered misleading on 40% of the sites checked.

The annual online study, run by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN), gives consumer authorities across the world the opportunity to target fraudulent, deceptive or unfair conduct online.

This year's sweep focused on environmental claims for the first time, analysing almost 500 websites promoting online products and services across a range of sectors, including clothes, cosmetics and food. It found four out of 10 websites used an array of tactics that could mislead consumers about the environmental impact or sustainability of their choices.

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which jointly led the review, said the study showed too many websites are pushing misleading green claims, meaning those that do offer a genuine environmental benefit might not get the customers they deserve.

Michael Briggs, Which? head of sustainability, said: 'This latest research by regulators is a stark warning that many companies are failing to live up to environmental claims about their products and services, leaving the growing number of consumers looking to make more sustainable choices at risk of being misled.

'It's vital that manufacturers and retailers put a stop to greenwashing so that people can trust the information they see and make informed decisions. Otherwise the regulator must be prepared to take action to tackle this issue.'

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What are misleading environmental claims?

Many of the websites examined in the survey used tactics that could be considered misleading and therefore potentially break consumer law, such as:

  • Vague claims and unclear language, including terms such as 'eco' or 'sustainable' or reference to 'natural products' without adequate explanation or evidence of the claims;
  • Own-brand eco logos and labels not associated with an accredited organisation;
  • Hiding or omitting certain information, such as a product's pollution levels, to appear more eco-friendly.

What is the CMA doing to help UK consumers make sustainable choices?

The CMA is currently undertaking its own UK-specific investigation to better understand the impact of green marketing on consumers. It will lookinto the ways that products and services claiming to be 'eco-friendly' are being marketed, and whether consumers could be being misled.

The aim of the investigation is to better understand how consumer protection legislation can be used to tackle false or misleading environmental claims that affect consumers, and support the move towards a low carbon economy through doing so.

The CMA also plans to produce guidance for businesses on how they can best be transparent in the way that they market goods and services in relation to any claims made about environmental impact.

How to spot greenwashing online

  1. Vague buzzwords or phrases - Words such as 'natural', 'green', or 'eco-friendly' are, unfortunately, often meaningless. There is little regulation controlling their use, so treat them with caution.
  2. Lack of evidence - Bold environmental claims can often seem convincing, but are they true? Try to find a secondary, authoritative source of information to back up manufacturers' claims, and think about the bigger picture. For example, can environmental claims made on a single-use plastic water bottle be taken seriously?
  3. Images of nature - Photos or graphics featuring natural subjects such as trees, fields and flowers, or blue skies and oceans, appear often on packaging, implying that the product is natural, organic or beneficial to wildlife. But beware, the pictures alone mean nothing.
  4. Hidden manufacturer or parent company - Many large companies have bought up small brands, or created their own sub-brands, targeted towards environmentally conscious customers. Check whether your favourite 'small brand' is actually owned by a much bigger, less planet-friendly conglomerate.
  5. Lack of transparency - If you're struggling to find environmental information about a product, brand or service, take that as a warning sign. Companies that have something to hide - or no good stories to tell - often make it harder for consumers to check out their eco credentials.