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Will new anti-‘greenwash’ guidelines make any difference?

Cleaning spray against green background

New guidelines to help prevent advertisers making fluffy, meaningless or plain misleading environmental claims sound good. So will they help shoppers pick the right eco products – or is this a missed opportunity?

The Green Claims Guidance is designed to be a DIY toolkit for businesses who want to make a ‘good’ environmental claim about a product or service they offer.

If they’re going to say anything eco-themed about a product, it needs to be clear, accurate and substantiated – the three words emblazoned on the guide’s front cover.

Here at Which?, we’re pleased to see Defra looking again into the murky world of ‘greenwashing‘. This is a phrase coined to describe when a company tapping into the lucrative green market gets over-liberal with its use of environmental buzzwords, imagery, labels or jargon-filled claims that can’t be robustly backed up.

Have you been greenwashed?

In two separate Which? investigations last year we asked environmental experts to look at green claims found on product packaging.

In the case of eco-friendly cleaning products like toilet cleaners and laundry powders, all the products we looked at made some genuine claims – but most also made other claims that the companies didn’t support with convincing evidence.

And apparently, describing a gardening product as ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ doesn’t necessarily tell you very much at all, according to our friends at Which? Gardening.

So will a fresh set of government guidelines help advertisers tick all the eco boxes in future, and restore our faith in the so-called green products we’re buying into?

Greenwashing guidelines unravelled

The 40-page guide offers businesses a step-by-step approach to building a properly substantiated environmental case in all areas of communication, right from examining a full lifecycle of a product, to presenting stats properly and using the right terminology and labelling.

That’s all well and good, but our policy expert Rebecca Owen-Evans isn’t convinced the lengthy guidelines are enough on their own. She told me:

‘The document is full of helpful guidance – but more needs to be done to promote standards that both marketers and consumers understand, provide clear definitions of common terms – like the Government did for ‘carbon neutral’ – and ensure that there are real sanctions in place for “greenwashers”.’

Will it wash?

It’s helpful that other guidelines are signposted throughout the document and good to see some examples of practical applications of the rules in there, too.

But of the marketing bods who are brave enough to wade through the 40-page guidelines, I can’t see many going on to pitch snappy phrases like ‘the fuel consumption of this car emits 10% less carbon dioxide per mile than all others measured in the ‘large car’ category’.

Finally, note that these are voluntary guidelines only. The teeth of enforcement belong to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) or Trading Standards (depending on the nature of the complaint). Both are bodies designed to deal with an offence after it’s been committed rather than tackling the root of the problem.

Do you trust green claims made about products – and will these guidelines make you think any differently?

Comments
Member

Though I am keen that we do more to look after the environment, I don’t see why green claims should be treated any differently from claims made in other advertising.

We need to ban all advertising unless it is totally honest and all claims can be substantiated. Any disadvantages should also be highlighted.

e.g. “Unlike most plastic bags, our new bags are totally biodegradable. This can take over a year, so that they should not be put in waste to be composted”

Member

Its all very well having guidelines, which I fully support , for adverts etc. but with no effective enforcing authority they are almost completely ineffective in dealing with the main repeat offenders.
The ASA has no powers or effective sanctions and I can not see how it can even start to deal with internet advertising despite its much heralded radio advertising campaign.

Member

Absolutely agree with rarrar and Wavechange on all counts:

The rules should apply to everything and the guidelines are useless without any legal “oomph” behind them.

I’ve posted in many places about the “greenwash” that really annoys me and would be illegal in many other quarters, and I’m sorry to say that even Which? is sometimes guilty of being party to some of it – see especially my extensive posts regarding the Boiler Scrappage Scheme and cold only fill washing machines.

However, the key to fixing this is for the GOVERNMENT (and governments of other countries too) to stop feeding us what at best can be described as “greenwash” and at worst outright lies. Whilst ever we are getting governments doing this how on earth can we ever hope manufacturers or promotions companies will be reigned in?