Environmental claims and the problem of “greenwashing”

Written on 2 Jul 2021

Fighting greenwashing: The results of the European Commission's investigation into environmental claims

On 28 January, the European Commission unveiled the results of an investigation into the review of environmental claims.

This investigation is part of the so-called "sweep" operations, which consist of a series of checks carried out simultaneously on different websites to detect possible breaches of EU consumer protection law in a particular sector. These operations are coordinated by the European Commission and carried out annually by the national enforcement authorities in the EU that are part of the Consumer Protection Cooperation network.

For the year 2020, the survey focused on "greenwashing", a practice whereby companies claim to be doing more for the environment when in fact they are not. The sectors analyzed included textiles, cosmetics and household equipment.

Therefore, more than 344 environmental claims on the websites of different companies were analyzed. The investigation carried out by the European Commission and the national authorities revealed the following findings

• in 1.4% of cases, environmental claims were implied;
• In 57.5% of the cases, professionals had not provided sufficient information to assess the accuracy of the claims;
• In 37% of cases, claims included vague statements such as 'environmentally friendly', 'ecological', 'sustainable', giving consumers the impression that the product only had a positive impact on the environment;
• In 59% of the cases, professionals had not provided readily available evidence to support their allegations;
• In 76% of cases, the allegations were made in clear language.

Finally, seven claims were on the blacklist of misleading commercial practices established by Directive 2005/29 of 11 May 2005. For example, some claims suggested that the product had been approved by a public or private body when this was not the case.

The European Commission states that national authorities will contact the companies concerned to report any problems detected and ensure that they are corrected. In addition, this survey will be used for the impact assessment that is to accompany the new legislative proposal aimed at empowering consumers in the context of the ecological transition by being better informed about the sustainability of products and better protected against certain practices including "greenwashing". Finally, the European Commission indicates that a legislative proposal on the justification of environmental claims will follow.

https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/fr/ip_21_269
https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/consumer-rights-and-complaints/enforcement-consumer-protection/sweeps_en

In France: reinforced sanctions and new provisions against greenwashing in the framework of the Climate Law

During the discussions on the Climate bill, the deputies adopted an amendment allowing to significantly reinforce the sanctions applicable to misleading commercial practices, when they concern greenwashing: The amount of the fine may thus be increased to 80% of the expenses incurred for the realization of the advertising or the practice qualified as greenwashing (against 50% today). Furthermore, the publication of the penalty for greenwashing will be systematic, in particular on the website of the convicted legal person for thirty days.

To be continued:

The practical guide to environmental claims specifying the conditions of use of certain claims such as compostable, biodegradable, eco-designed, etc. is currently being updated by the National Consumer Council and the new version is expected very soon (the current version dates from 2014).

Still in the context of the discussions on the Climate Bill, a new provision foresees a ban on claims in advertising that a product or service is "carbon neutral" or has no negative impact on the climate. The amendment at the origin of this proposal recalls that the claim "carbon neutral" has no scientific basis, a position clearly expressed by ADEME in a recent opinion, as the concept of carbon neutrality does not make sense at the level of a company or a product. Such a provision, if confirmed, will force many operators to revise their communications highlighting the compensation of their own carbon emissions, via the financing of emission reduction projects.