Glossing over the truth

Misleading claims about the sustainability of products – greenwashing – has become more common, says David Burrows. What can be done to control it?

Last year, Ancol Pet Products claimed that a product it was selling, Refill Poop Bag Rolls, was “biodegradable to lessen your dog’s impact on the environment.” As it turns out, the claim itself was a load of crap. 

Following a complaint made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Ancol couldn’t prove the product was biodegradable. “No testing or evidence of the claims had been provided to demonstrate the bags’ ability to biodegrade,” the ASA ruled, meaning the company was in breach of UK advertising codes and had to remove the advert. In other words, it was a greenwash.

It will be news to nobody that companies often create misleading marketing that promotes a product, service or brand as more eco-friendly than it really is. However, this particular case is significant – because in the post-Blue Planet era, dubious sustainability claims are on the increase. Has David Attenborough inadvertently fuelled a surge in greenwashing, and if so, how can it be stopped?

Early promise

According to the Oxford Dictionary, greenwash is ‘disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image’. A decade or so ago, it was a major problem, and regulators were struggling to keep up. “This is new, almost virgin territory for us,” admitted Chris Smith, a former Labour minister and then-chairman of the ASA. “We are breaking new ground and this is a growing area, as we are increasingly finding that advertisers are using green claims to sell their products and services and to give them an edge over their rivals.”

In 2006, the ASA received 117 complaints about environmental claims in 83 adverts. A year later, it was 561 complaints about 410 adverts, with the likes of Suzuki, Shell, Ryanair and Toyota all censured. In their desperation to be seen as green, many companies got out their greenwashing brushes – but it wasn’t always deliberate. “Most greenwash is due to ignorance and/or sloppiness rather than malicious intent,” noted the sustainability consultancy Futerra in its guide to the subject.

Still, it was easy for campaigners to identify bad apples and flag them to the ASA so that, before long, stories would be splashed across the newspapers. The Guardian had its own dedicated email address for the subject, while Greenpeace launched a stopgreenwash.org website. In the space of a couple of years, companies became so fearful of ‘killer’ publicity that the number of complaints quickly dried up. ASA figures published in Marketing magazine at the end of 2009 showed that 158 ads referencing the environment had attracted complaints so far that year, compared with 264 for the whole of 2008. Was the initial flurry of green claims a reflection of early ‘quick wins’ that required little in the way of genuine product or brand shifts? Did companies clean up their acts? Or did sustainability fall out of fashion following the recession? 

It was probably a mixture of all three. A decade on, though, the environment is back in vogue, thrust into the social and political spotlight thanks to the issue of plastic consumption and pollution. As The Guardian noted recently: “The public backlash has undoubtedly brought a serious environmental problem to the attention of the highest level of government and business, and convinced them it is a winning issue.” 

“Businesses and politicians are desperate to be seen as green, and some fibs have already been exposed”

The new wave

Fail to act on plastic these days and you are labelled a sinner. Businesses and politicians are desperate to be seen as green and are making the same mistakes. Some fibs have already been exposed. The disposable paper cups so ubiquitous on the high street, for example, were touted as ‘recyclable’ for years – but only 1 in 400 was actually recycled. The exposure has given industry a kick, but the new figure – 1 in 25 cups recycled – puts a positive spin on a recycling rate of just 4%. Indeed, increased recyclability and recycling claims have attracted the loudest cries of greenwashing from NGOs, says Robert Blood from campaign tracking firm Sigwatch. “NGOs are pushing industry to accept reduced use, rather than increased recycling, as the proof point of sustainability.”

Interest in biodegradable packaging has also surged on the back of anti-plastic feeling, with companies eager to switch to options that are supposedly more sustainable. Straws are an example of this: some of the largest firms in the food service and hospitality sector have ditched plastic straws in favour of ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives such as paper and compostables, but with little thought given to where the items end up. “I’m not sure that some of the companies understand the full value chain impacts of their decisions,” Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at waste management group Suez, told me recently.

Using plastic doesn’t look good, but what does ‘good’ look like? This can be hard to determine and very circumstance dependent, admits Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at Eunomia, an environmental consultancy that has been working with a variety of global brands on their plastics strategies. “There’s a lot of confusion about which materials to use, and it’s not confined to food and drink,” he says. “In fashion, for example, over-simplistic claims are often made about bamboo and other cellulose-based fabrics, ignoring the chemically-intensive manufacturing impacts.”

Many of Eunomia’s clients are considered in their approach and want science-based advice before they make a move, but plenty of others have gone ahead and publicised their initiatives without understanding all the pros and cons. “The use of terms such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘degradable’ without any real justification is also still common,” Hilton says. 

Truth telling

There are three golden rules when it comes to truthful green marketing. The first is to avoid vague terminology, such as ‘eco’ and ‘biodegradable’. There is growing support for brands to ban the latter word in reference to packaging; the Foodservice Packaging Association has argued that it is “misleading for the public, many of whom erroneously believe it is acceptable to litter biodegradable packaging”.

The other two rules are: make sure it’s not misleading (for example, comparisons with other products must be fair, and any pictures used must relate directly to the benefit you’re claiming), and stick to objective and transparent data (for example, consider the whole life-cycle of the product). Soda Stream, for example, used a certification from the Carbon Trust – which compared the carbon footprint per 250ml of sparkling water produced using its home drinks maker with the same amount of bottled sparkling water – to convince the ASA that the phrase ‘eco-friendly’ was justified in a 2016 green marketing video.

How many businesses adhere to these rules is a moot point, especially when there’s a bandwagon steamrolling through the corporate sustainability space. Analysis for Defra in 2010 showed that, of 4,492 claims made across 3,234 items (both products and services) in 32 sectors, one in 10 were ‘general’ and ‘non-specific’ (for example, using the term ‘eco-friendly’ without any support or certification). In 2011, the Coalition government updated guidance to companies making claims. This guidance ran to 40 pages, advising firms on everything from the use of images to carbon neutrality. However, there was little specific help for those advertising online.

Seven years later, the guidance has been slimmed down to a single page on the department’s website. This hardly seems sufficient given the way the marketing landscape has changed, with digital tech and algorithms having taken over. As Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, put it in a blog for Forbes in 2018: sustainability needs to live on social media. Thousands of sustainability reports are published every year, packed with social and environmental revelations, but most are buried away in ancient formats or on sub-sub-pages of corporate websites. “It’s almost as if those answers are deliberately hidden from the young consumers asking the questions,” she noted.

Once bitten, twice shy, perhaps? A year on, though, plastic has given many brands the confidence to talk publicly about sustainability again. In opening up, they once again run the risk of greenwashing, of course, and the stakes could not be higher. Consumers – especially the younger ones, well-versed in social media – are savvier, more critical and more demanding than ever, suggests Joss Ford, founder of marketing and communications agency Enviral. “People share things that are amazingly good or amazingly bad – that’s contagiousness.” What represents good or bad remains far from clear-cut, however. 

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

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