/ Sustainability

Are some ‘eco-friendly’ claims misleading?

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is conducting research into green marketing. Can you help it gather evidence? Our guest explains more.

This is a guest post by Cecilia Parker Aranha. All views expressed are Cecilia’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

When shopping, do you check how what you are buying was made, in order to ensure that little or no harm was done to the environment? Perhaps you look for the recycle label because you don’t want the packaging to go to landfill.

Does this information affect your choice of which item to buy? If so, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) would like to hear from you. 

We’ve launched a project to investigate whether descriptions and labels used to promote products and services claiming to be ‘eco-friendly’ can mislead consumers.

We are also interested in whether information that’s left out can also lead to people buying goods and services thinking they are more sustainable than they actually are.

Ethical goods and services

In 2019, UK consumers spent £41 billion a year on ethical goods and services – almost 4 times as much as people spent two decades ago. Increasing numbers of people are quite rightly concerned about the environment and want to play their part by being greener. 

We want to better understand the impact of green marketing on consumers – and this is where you come in.

Whether or not you pay close attention to environmental claims and labelling, we would love to hear from you. Our online questionnaire is easy to fill in and should take around 10 minutes.

Having your say on this can help us ensure that in the future businesses give consumers the best information possible.

Examples of misleading behaviour could include:

🍃 Exaggerating the positive environmental impact of a product or service

🍃 Using complex or jargon-heavy language

🍃 Implying that items are eco-friendly through packaging and logos when this is not true

Eco-friendly claims

We’re looking to hear about any goods or services where you’ve encountered ‘eco-friendly’ claims, but areas where we think people might be particularly concerned about the environmental impact of what they buy include: 

🍃 Clothes

🍃 Flights

🍃 Food and drink

🍃 Beauty products

🍃 Cleaning products

After we have gathered evidence, we plan to publish guidance for businesses next Summer to help them support the transition to a low carbon economy without misleading consumers.

If we find evidence that businesses are misleading consumers, we’ll take appropriate action.

So if you want to have your say, please do take a look at our questionnaire. We also welcome and will pick up comments made beneath this article to help inform the project. Many thanks!

This was a guest post by Cecilia Parker Aranha. All views expressed were Cecilia’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Comments

There is “green” in making and buying things and there is “green” in how things work. These two are not always complimentary though one will trade off the other’s weakness. For major items, that will last the consumer some time, it is the efficiency of the product that matters, how much energy it consumes and its longevity and reliability. Thus, the electric car may contain elements of non-green manufacture and materials but will make up for it in environmental cleanliness and cheap running costs. The customer chooses on budget, suitability and expert review, not usually on what’s inside something or how it got there.
With regard to green household products, there is no point in being green if it doesn’t work. We buy cleaners and detergents to do the job efficiently. It is a difficult compromise to make if clothes remained stained and counter tops have to be scrubbed without results the first time over.
Clothing is also difficult to buy entirely for its “green” credentials. There is no help from the label to tell if it has been made in a sweat-shop and most clothing is labelled Pakistan, Korea, Taiwan, even in M&S. I am prepared to pay a little more for things that I believe were made well and with care, but who can really tell?
Life is hard just now, especially as we are going to have to get used to going backwards and doing less of the things we used to do and liked doing. Currently, I choose things I know will be useful and work well. My “green” investigations are limited to what the manufacturer tells me and what public opinion says is to be avoided for the public good. Change will be made when attitudes change, and that is done through education and acceptance of new ideas and norms. Sadly, most of this is on the “do without” and “restrict consumption” side of the balance and very little on the “go on then, treat yourself” side. We can no longer go along and do what’s best for us, it has to be best for others as well. Such is life.

I was given an environmentally friendly kitchen cleaning spray to evaluate. It was a waste of money as a squirt of washing up liquid in hot water worked better.

I use an old spray bottle with diluted Flash.

Having looked at the questionnaire I think it is far too hard for those without specialist knowledge to make useful judgements based on the information that manufacturers provide.

I have seen electric heaters described as ‘efficient’ or ‘eco’, but while different heaters are more effective for particular uses there is no difference in the efficiency of converting electricity to heat in heaters. The use of these term should be banned for electric heaters.

Some tumble dryers are more efficient than others but no condenser or vented tumble dryer deserves to be called efficient when much more efficient heat pump dryers are readily available.

For the past thirty years we have have misleading information about biodegradable plastics. Very few have been biodegradable and some of the current ones are only biodegradable when industrially processed.

I believe that the way forward is to ban environmental claims unless they can be independently verified.

There are some ways that consumers can easily make informed choices, such as buying products in paper and card packaging rather than plastic.

On occasion it is necessary to go backwards in order to go forwards to evaluate a difficult situation and reassess where we are heading and make the necessary changes that will lead to a more sustainable and eco friendly existence.

The war on plastics is my number one priority. Plastic is now one of the planets largest pollutants and it is estimated there are close to 5 trillion
micro plastic particles floating about in earths oceans which are being consumed by all marine life species and eventually eaten by us. How long before these particles will be transported into the eco atmospheric system and rain down on us, polluting the mountain streams and rivers and the water we drink?

Combustible plastic was responsible for the many deaths at Grenfell, caused by inflammable plastic cladding on the exterior of the building, most probably started by a plastic backed fridge that caught fire and which spread too fast to contain the spread of the flames. Cheap plastic goods continue to flood global markets and purchased by consumers without any thought or consideration as to where they will end up when they have served their short term purpose.

If more durable safer and repairable goods are to be produced with guarantees that will stand the test of time, perhaps our educational system could focus more on, and include teaching children the practical rudiments of the necessary skills required to carry out simple repairs to household appliances, as it is they who are the potential future victims of the global plastic pollution crisis created by us.

It could be time to ban some uses of plastic. Do we really need artificial grass, which will eventually degrade into countless micro-plastic particles? We have already banned use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics.

It’s good to see that some companies have phased out expanded polystyrene packaging and gone back to cardboard, but using innovative packaging that offers better protection.

A major problem is traceability back along the supply chain. The company making the product might adhere to all the right guidelines but it’s often impossible to tell if the material for one component came from an illegal mine in central Africa worked by ten year olds.

Longer life repairable products are one way of being green even if they may not be lowest in energy efficiency. The resources saved may well offset that, and more. And, when we have the nirvana of totally renewable energy I could argue energy use become less of a green issue.

However we do not need green products only to help the planet. We can use the existing products we use more efficiently. Full load of washing. Dry clothes naturally and only use a tumble dryer when necessary. Use a fossil fuel (and less friendly) vehicle less by using other transport when appropriate – walk, bike, public transport, less leisure driving; halve your mileage and halve your emissions without scrapping a car and buying a new one that has used a substantial amount of resources to build. Cease holiday flights. Stop using air conditioning.

A major green advance though would be as Beryl says – substantially reduce the use of plastics. One of the places to start would be on packaging: immediately thrown away.

Vynor said in his last paragraph ” We can no longer go along and do what’s best for us, it has to be best for others as well. Such is life.”. Too often I suspect this becomes just “this is what is best for others, but I’ll carry on as usual”. We have to just relentlessly provide relevant information and educate people in a way that makes them see the sense in taking certain actions if they can and if the opportunities arise. Largely, I suspect, the incentive will be in real financial savings rather than altruism. This might be through actual savings or avoiding being subject to “penalties” like taxes. Persuading me to discard my effective tumble dryer and spend perhaps £600 on a heat pump one to save perhaps £30 a year doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe ban other forms of dryer to force my choice when it needs to be made, but check first whether the extra energy and resources used to make the more complex dryer are repaid by the energy savings.

Do I trust anyone to provide the truth about “green” and to take account of the whole lifecycle? Government or business? No. I see we are still ploughing ahead with the fabled carbon capture approach, small nuclear power stations, but ignoring tidal flow and storage as energy sources. Why?

Bit of a ramble; sorry.

No form of energy production is without negative impact. Tidal energy schemes, like a lot of hydro ones, usually involve considerable “collateral damage” on the local ecosystem. Is it right to sacrifice the ecology of the Bristol channel, for argument’s sake, for a relatively small energy contribution? Perhaps wave power might be less damaging. We desperately need something to replace the grid base load currently supplied by gas and the ageing nuclear plants. One proven, albeit expensive solution is more large scale nuclear. This also has the advantage of supplying intertia to the grid, reducing the risk of instability. Okay, it is expensive, but expense doesn’t seem to be a problem with anything Covid related.

Nuclear waste could be even more damaging to the planet than plastics.

Who is going to keep track of the high-level waste in thousands of years time when it will still be hazardous? How long will storage facilities be safe from leakage, geological changes, war or terrorism?

It irks me to hear people who should know better pronouncing this as “nucular”. You would think important people, like presidents, would be coached to get this right.

Tidal storage does not cover more ground with water than the normal tide, it seems to me; it might just change the normal duration of coverage. Be interested to see just how ecology is affected, how it would be diverted elsewhere, and how it compares with the other environmental destruction that fossil fuels cause through global warming. While the civil engineering costs may be high we undertake other projects with high costs – defence, HS2, nuclear power stations as examples.

As alfa says we have the major problem of dealing with nuclear waste. Tidal raises no waste issues. The UK is in a privileged position in being surrounded by a huge potential source of free clean and everlasting energy. We really should capitalise on that.

Having lived through 75 years of unprecedented stability and economic prosperity since WW2, it is far too easy to forget that safe power from nuclear fission depends on the continuation of the status quo. We need a modern scientific, industrial society to provide the infrastructure and human resources necessary to care for nuclear installations. This has to continue until they are finally decommissioned, stripped of all hazardous radioactive materials and everything safely buried where it can no longer be a bio-hazard to humans, either directly, or via contaminated livestock, plants, marine animals and wildlife.

As yet, no human society has survived as long as even the half-life of many of the plutonium and uranium isotopes found in nuclear reactors. The efforts to clean up Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and other accidents shows how much money, ongoing care and attention is needed just to contain and mop up the immediate after-effects, let alone sustain this effort for thousands of years to come. And this is regardless of whether your friendly neighborhood powerplant happens to blow up in future, or just reaches it economic end of life.

It is not hard to imagine the decline of one or more of today’s civilizations, brought about (in no particular order), by disease, famine, war, political and civil unrest and/or economic collapse. Plenty of these triggers are around today, waiting for the perfect storm. We just need enough self-interested people with no understanding of the wider implications of our existing nuclear legacy to prevail and bring down this house of cards.

Such events, impacting on the continued safe operation and maintenance of nuclear installations, are going to have far wider implications for the long term future for life on this planet, than CO2 emissions, microplastics or anything else you could imagine, whether or not any new nuclear plants are built in the future.

I am not “against” nuclear power, but a Faustian pact cannot be undone in one person’s lifetime.

Further to alfa’s questions about the long term safety of nuclear wastes, the UK has a dedicated agency to oversee these matters, see:-https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/radioactive-waste-management

Perhaps one of the biggest ecological cons going is the idea that we can offset our CO2 emissions by getting someone much poorer than us to plant some trees and look after them indefinitely.

It took maybe 20,000,000 years to sequester the carbon we are now releasing by burning fossil fuels to heat our homes. or move us and the goods we buy around the planet. Still, it seems we can pay some third-world worker a small lump sum today to set aside land that he was using to grow crops to feed his family, or take on the management of some barren wasteland and magically transform it into verdant forest. He will then on receipt of further small payments, continue to plant additional trees to offset our otherwise selfish holidays – basically until the world runs out of land or we stop burning oil, whichever comes first.

But he must nevertheless undertake to care for them forever, or somehow pay for a better solution to absolve him of the responsibility. Obviously, if those trees are subsequently burnt or just die and rot down without being replaced like-for-like, then my carbon emissions are no longer being offset and its game over for my “eco-friendly” trip to Disneyland, let alone the planet as we enjoy it today.

What really puzzles me is how this person is going to feed himself and his family so they can replant those trees over the next millennia for a one time payment of just £20, or whatever my last transatlantic flight cost to offset. According to the UN and other aid agencies, it costs at least £120 to feed one adult for one year. Maybe carbon offsetting is also the solution to world hunger.

Or is it all a scam? How do I audit what happened to that carbon I released in 2000 and paid the airline to offset? Where is the forest? Which trees in particular are locking down “my” carbon emissions? What guarantee do I have that they will still be there in another fifty years?

Even if every carbon offset scheme based on plants is 100% genuine, it is definitely not sustainable. Unless the trees are regularly harvested and the wood stored in some rot-proof underground cavern, all we are doing is kicking the can down the road. This is why carbon needs to be locked down permanently in mineral form e.g. limestone, as is most of the world’s sequestered carbon, not in flammable or compostable organic materials.

There is no need to store wood underground. Just dump all our plastic waste in landfill, where it will remain undegraded for hundreds of years or more, conveniently providing carbon capture.

I share your concerns, Em. Is carbon offsetting a scam to convince us all that it’s acceptable to carry on manufacturing and consuming?

So long as the global population keeps increasing unbounded we are forever playing catch-up with no chance of success. This is the root of the problem.

I don’t have an answer to the problem – well, I do, but it is not acceptable.

I was chatting to a midwife and her antenatal clinic is full, so I wonder if there will be a Covid baby boom.

We are supposed to be discussing misleading eco-friendly claims in this Convo, but there are not many relevant posts here so far. 🙁

100% agree with that Em.

The big tech companies claim they are carbon neutral but how do they get away with ignoring the mountains of e-waste they leave behind.

Here is the label of a pump-bottle of antibacterial hand-wash labelled ‘eco’:

The basis of the Eco-claim is that the bottle can be refilled, but I’ve seen few refill bottles on offer in supermarkets and other shops, so the vast majority of sales are of pump-bottles. Perhaps the Eco-claim should only appear on refill bottles.

Antibacterial handwash is in my view a product we don’t need. It has been widely reported that the chemicals used in these handwashes offers no benefit, yet they cause environmental damage. Thankfully the worst offender – triclosan – is no longer used in the UK as far as I am aware. The coronavirus pandemic has led to shelves being cleared of antibacterial handwash, even though coronavirus is a virus, not a bacterium.

@cparanha – Hi Cecilia – Apologies for being off-topic but I strongly believe that the CMA should look at the anticompetitive action of major printer manufacturers using firmware updates to prevent consumers using third party ink cartridges. Here is a recent post in another Conversation:

“I just updated my Epson WF-4725 firmware and now it tells me I am not using Epson ink and my only on-screen option now is to “Change Ink” and must use Epson inks which currently are on sale in a certain large PC store for £74.90 – the printer only cost £65 so it’s going into the bin and I’ll find a company that allows third party software. I can’t copy or scan either let alone try to print via Word, Excel etc. BE WARNED, DON’T DO THE NOVEMBER 20 FIRMWARE UPDATE as once you do, the compatible cartridges will be no good unfortunately. So long Epson after 20 odd years of buying your printers.” https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/printer-software-update-third-party-printer-ink/#comment-1612172

There are 15 pages of discussion in this Conversation including plenty of examples of how manufacturers are forcing users to scrap their printers, which is obviously damaging to the environment, or use OEM ink.

This is in the wrong Convo but I would like to know what Which? is doing about this. Lots of discussion in Convos to show the problems and help them put a strategy together, I would have thought. I presume it is within their scope?

When I first read the Intro to this Conversation I did wonder whether “eco-friendly” claims were the most important things for the CMA to be looking at among all the other priority consumer concerns including anti-competitive practices, collusive price fixing, monopolistic behaviour, denial of consumer rights, and so on.

The CMA has intervened on a number of serious issues, such as refunds for cancelled flights and insurance comparison websites, but the general reaction has been “too little, too late”.

I feel it would be better to leave the exploration of product labelling to Which? for which it is better suited and has an active community providing evidence and ideas, thus allowing the CMA to deal with things where greater authority and a statutory remit are required.

I don’t agree it is outside of the CMA remit, provided they look at the effects of misleading eco-labeling on competition and consumer choice.

If I run a company that comes up with a genuinely innovative green product or service, I should be able to describe and market it to consumers without having to invent a new vocabulary of eco-terms, or risk the major brand competitors jumping on my pitch with misleading and diversionary “me to” claims. But that is what’s happening due to a lack of regulation and consumer knowledge on the subject.

Numerous companies already state their product and/or packaging is “100% recyclable”, but it is left to local authorities and waste handling companies to figure out exactly how to recycle it without costing more than sending it to landfill, and whether there is a market for the recycled materials.

Even where closed-loop recycling methods are well-established, like soft drink PET bottles, according to the industry’s own figures only about 60% of PET bottles sold are actually being recycled. I think the rest are in my hedgerow, if anyone from the trade would like to get in touch to come and collect them? Yes, I thought not … .

And then we see claims from manufacturers of polyester (PET) clothing that they are made from 100% recycled materials. Oh great, that sounds interesting and ever so “eco friendly”. Only now, a few years later, I’ve worn out my jumper made of recycled drinks bottles. 10% of the plastic microfibres have been lost down the washing machine drain and into the sea. But never mind, how do I recycle what’s left? What do you mean there are no facilities to recycle synthetic clothing materials?

These are just a few examples of where products are already misleadingly described and convenient half-truths disguise the reality of what is going on.

I agree with you, Em, that the CMA could usefully look at these more specific and analytical factors around eco credentials; it is certainly not outside their remit and I did not intend to suggest that it was. To me it was a questionable priority to pursue the following points –

We want to better understand the impact of green marketing on consumers – and this is where you come in. Whether or not you pay close attention to environmental claims and labelling, we would love to hear from you. Our online questionnaire is easy to fill in and should take around 10 minutes.

That seemed more up Which?’s street. At least now that Which? is aware that the CMA is doing it there should be no overlap or duplication.

The points you have raised would certainly bear detailed examination because they are fundamental to an ecological approach and go to the root of the problem. The commercial approach evaporates when it gets too close to the heat of the issue. I hope the CMA survey gets beneath the superficial level of platitudinous customer gratification.

I see the use of false and misleading eco-friendly claims as well within the remit of the CMA and see the roles of Which? and CMA as complementary. In her introduction, Cecilia explains in simple terms some of the problems:

“Examples of misleading behaviour could include:

🍃 Exaggerating the positive environmental impact of a product or service

🍃 Using complex or jargon-heavy language

🍃 Implying that items are eco-friendly through packaging and logos when this is not true”

The Advertising Authority picks up some of the simpler example, for example:
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/09/the-five-ads-banned-for-greenwashing

I can relate to what Em has said about the use of unfamiliar language by companies to compete unfairly with others, making this clearly within the remit of the CMA.

I share your view, Wavechange. I am questioning the priority, not the validity, of the CMA’s current exercise.

Competition is unfair when it acts against consumers’ interests. That is always worth investigating scientifically.

As far as I am aware two bodies are best placed to deal with false eco or green claims. The Advertising Standards Authority can deal with untrue or misleading advertising, and Trading Standards is charged, among its other duties, with dealing with such things as misleading labelling and fake products. If this is still the case, I would prefer to see the correct bodies properly resourced to carry out their function than divert to maybe less appropriate organisations.

I hope Which? collaborate with other organisations who are more specialised in the green/eco agenda, Friends of the Earth, Ethical Consumer, perhaps. And, of course, with other Consumer Organisations, particularly in Europe; this is not just a UK issue, is it.

Here is a recent article about what the CMA is doing to tackle the problem of certain businesses making false or misleading claims about eco-friendly products. The current survey is mentioned: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/02/businesses-making-eco-friendly-claims-to-be-vetted-by-uk-watchdog

It is good to hear that action might be taken. Honest information is something consumers should be given. Complete information, though, is unlikely. So we will still need to find out the whole truth for ourselves, through bodies like Which?

The claims I have a real problem with are the ones that say changing to a plant-based diet will save the planet.

Those pushing veganism claim the Amazon is being cut down to grow soya to feed cows but the number of cows in the world is reducing every year.

So what I want to know, is where all the land is coming from to grow what must now be an enormous new land requirement to grow crops for human consumption, just one of which will be soya? Then there are all the plant-based milks, and pea-protein that seems to be in everything these days, and that’s just for starters.

All products claim they use sustainable palm oil. They can’t all be sustainable.