CMA moves to tackle product greenwashing in 2021

The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has proposed to introduce legislation in 2021 that tackles greenwashing and false claims surrounding ‘eco-friendly’ products.

The proposed legislation is a direct response to the increased marketing of products and services touted as environmentally friendly, as public engagement in sustainability translates into consumer habits.

According to the Government the UK spent £41 billion on ethical goods and services in 2019, constituting a four fold increase in the last 20 years. The time is right then to identify and prevent misleading promotional tactics, such as the over-exaggeration of environmental benefits, blindsiding jargon and deceptive packaging imagery.

Breach of consumer law

It is increasingly difficult for consumers to make sense of environmental initiatives and labels that detail a product or company’s environmental performance. For instance, an EU initiative on substantiating green claims states there are more than 200 environmental labels currently active in Europe, and 450 globally.

The CMA will consider whether neglecting to provide all of the sustainability information of a given product, for instance its pollution index, may be a breach of consumer law as it misleads purchasers. The CMA indicate that their efforts will focus on items where there has been clear public concern in recent years, including misleading advertising within the textiles, beauty and transport industries.

Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, has commented "Increasing numbers of people are quite rightly concerned about the environment and want to play their part by being greener. Our role is to make sure that consumers can trust the claims they see on products for sale and don’t fork out extra for items falsely presented as eco-friendly."

"We know that many businesses will be looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and we strongly support this, but the claims they make must not mislead consumers in the process. It’s important that people can easily choose between those who are doing the right thing for the environment and those who are not, so that businesses genuinely investing in going green can be properly rewarded by their customers."

Wider issue of greenwashing

The planned legislation by the CMA plays into the wider issue of general ‘greenwashing’, whereby companies give a false impression through a range of messaging systems of their alleged sustainability credentials. It was first termed by environmentalist Jay Westrveld in 1986 as a critical response to the ‘save the towel’ movement gaining traction in hotels.

The term and the concept has proliferated since then, and produced memorable news stories, particularly surrounding misplaced advertising campaigns from global brands. Greenwashing also takes a more subtle form, and therefore a less quantifiable and preventable shape, via branding such as idyllic natural images on products that may ultimately destroy these scenes.

Whatever shape it takes, it nonetheless hinders progress toward a green economy by disadvantaging actors who are making concerted efforts toward greener services.

A standard methodology to assess impact?

The European Green Deal states the first step is to mandate that ‘green claims’ are substantiated ‘against a standard methodology to assess their impact’. This seems like a logical step, and if implemented in the UK could go a long way to weeding out false or deceptive messaging.

Although a regulated framework might not prevent the less immediately identifiable manifestations of greenwashing mentioned above, it would go some way to simplifying the market for consumers. This could additionally be the first step toward the adoption of complete organisational transparency.

A handful of companies, such as Patagonia, do not sugar-coat or hide the resources used in manufacturing their products, and this transparency has been widely welcomed by consumers. Unsurprisingly Patagonia are B Corp certified, generally a mark of companies who strive to lead the way and demonstrate increased transparency.

What to expect next

The CMA is expected to publish guidance next year detailing how businesses can help transition to a low carbon economy without using misleading marketing. This will follow discussions with key stakeholders and all updates can be found on the CMA misleading environmental claims webpage. We will of course provide an update on the legislation as it develops through our usual channels.

We welcome this move to create more accountability around sustainability claims. Marketing is the most powerful tool in shaping consumer behaviour, so where it comes to conserving finite resources and protecting the environment, it is imperative that citizens have a clear road to making the right choices. 

If you would like to speak to our team about any future policy impacts on your organisation, please contact us.

Louisa Goodfellow

Policy Manager

As Policy advisor Louisa provides key support to our team, including preparing reports on environmental policy issues and maintaining awareness of new developments. As such she will often be found coordinating responses to policy consultations, advocating policy positions and providing internal guidance to current legislation.

Written by Louisa Goodfellow Published 18/12/2020 Topics Sustainability
Get in touch