Another week, another story about climate-neutral claims.
The European consumer association BEUC has now stuck its ten (euro)cents in, by calling for the European Commission to ban the use of carbon neutral claims for all products including food and drink.
As we've written before, 'Carbon neutral', 'CO2 neutral', 'net zero', 'carbon neutral certified' and the like are now a common sight on supermarket shelves.
BEUC is calling for an outright ban of carbon-neutral claims in relation to food and drink because it believes:
- They are scientifically inaccurate: the production of all food and drinks will always necessitate the emission of carbon.
- Carbon offsetting, which underpins most such claims, provides no guarantees for 'locking in' carbon for the future.
- These claims mislead consumers, giving the false impression that the products are a good choice for the climate.
- Handling of complaints by national authorities is so slow that the harm of climate greenwashing is already done.
- Such claims can deter consumers from changing their diet (such as eating more plant-based food), which could be far more beneficial for the climate overall.
Under current consumer protection rules, action is only taken after consumers have been misled.
BEUC points out that a lot of carbon neutral claims are based on carbon offsetting, which is a well known (and largely accepted) practice, although some schemes are more effective than others. Such schemes allow businesses to pay, often cheaply, for carbon credits from offsetting projects to 'balance' out their own carbon-emitting activities in order to claim 'carbon neutrality'. Each credit represents one ton of carbon emissions compensated. BEUC says that planting trees is not adequate - this is also controversial, as again some schemes are better than others, and as the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the next best time to plant a tree is now.
The European Commission and Parliament are due to tackle greenwashing in the coming weeks - the European Parliament will review proposed amendments to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the European Commission is expected to publish a proposal for a new directive on substantiation and communication of green claims. It will be interesting to see if either proposal reflects BEUC's calls.
The green, green claims of home
In the UK, the ASA issued updated guidance in February 2023 which emphasised the need for organisations to adequately explain the basis of their carbon neutral claims. The ASA will monitor compliance before deciding if more action is required. Alongside this, the CMA has announced plans to investigate the accuracy of green claims made about household essentials.
As we've written before, greenwashing is damaging, but regulators need to tread a fine line between dealing with misleading marketing, and risk disincentivising businesses from taking steps to help the environment until and unless they have reached perfection...
In the UK, very broad green claims (which are unclear and/or unsubstantiated) are under intense scrutiny by both the CMA and ASA, and are all but prohibited.
At the moment, many brands are concerned that the UK regulators are setting the bar too high, and not giving consumers enough credit or letting brands talk about the good work they are doing without an axe above their heads.
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