Consumers’ demand for ‘green’ products has increased significantly over the past few years, with approximately the same measure of incidents of GreenWashing. Enviropeadia (eco-logical edition, 2011) reports that, in America, alone, one study found 98% of all green claims in 2009 guilty of one or more of the Seven Sins of GreenWashing, summarized in the side panel.
The study also revealed that 64% of the American public no longer trust sustainability related marketing claims. The trend is probably the same in South Africa and the practice of GreenWashing is clearly a threat to all honest producers, retailers and mostly to consumers. But what are the requirements for ‘green’ or sustainable products and is the use of green indications on products regulated in terms of our law, with sanctions for non-compliance?
In the food industry, the Department of Health recently published new Labeling and Advertising of Foodstuffs Regulations which will come into effect in March 2012. These regulations provide that labeling descriptions that indicate a more humane treatment/rearing of animals and convey a message that the product is healthier or additive free, free range, organic, pure etc. will be permitted only if they are used in line with specific protocols.
Upon further investigation, I found that many of the terms commonly encountered on current packaging, such as free range, organic, pure and the like are not meaningfully dealt with in any such protocols. Also, the search for information regarding those descriptions that are defined, is a laborious effort of checking and cross checking various statutes, their associated regulations and also Gazetted Notices. This is a task that lies beyond the means of ordinary members of the public.
A term that does, because of its popular application, require specific mention in this category is “organic”, but alarmingly the new regulations remain silent on how this term should be used. According to Niel Erasmus from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Directorate Food Safety and Quality Assurance), the publication of the regulations for organically produced products “ran into technical difficulties” and will not be published until the Agriculture Products Standards Act is amended first. He advises that concerned consumers should rely on the general prohibition on misleading claims, but it would be difficult to establish if an organic claim on a food item is misleading in the absence of any guidelines.
A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important.
An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence.
Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples are products falsely claiming to be organically certified or registered with a certification agency.
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’.
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement or association where no such endorsement exists.
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.
Obfuscating the bigger picture
Ignoring the claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this, as might the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle.
Information adapted from Terrachoice
A possible argument is that the SA organic food industry is already well established (relying on EU and USA principles), that consumers have an expectation that all organic claims are supported by certification and that, concomitantly, in the absence of certification, such a claim would be misleading. I would venture to say that the same applies to the cosmetics industry.
The use on products of the term “fair trade” ( that denotes a movement that advocates improved trading conditions for marginalized workers and manufacturers and strives for better market access for small producers), is regulated. This regulation is mostly by Fair Trade International (in Africa the member organization is Fair Trade Africa which operates in SA through a regional network) and it monitors producers and traders who claim that products are fair trade.
What about the use of terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘eco’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘energy efficient’, ‘water friendly’ and even just ‘green’? The use of these descriptions is not regulated by legislation, although some are regulated by industry watch dogs (such as the Advertising Standards Authority) and certification agencies such as The Carbon Neutral Company and the Biodynamic and Organic Certification Association.
For example, the Code of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which governs all advertisements (and an advertisement is broadly defined as any visual or aural communication, representation, reference or notification which is intended to promote the sale or use of goods or services) deals specifically with the use of environmental claims on advertising materials. The Code provides that absolute environmental claims, such as ‘…..free’, or ‘contains no….’ are all subject to substantiation. The Code also dictates that environmental signs or symbols should indicate their source and should not imply official approval.
The ASA has made several rulings on use of the terms natural and environmentally friendly. In Crammix/CMA there were two issues before the ASA, firstly use of the wording – “one of the most environmentally friendly and energy efficient masonry materials known to man” and secondly the use of a self derived environmentally friendly logo on the advertising materials complained of. The ASA held that the environmental claim may not be used unless the claim is qualified by a description of the benefit conferred by the claim. It also held, in connection with the environmentally friendly logo, that any such sign or symbol used in advertising should clearly indicate its source and may not imply official approval. It felt that the logo complained of left the impression of official approval by an accredited independent body similar to the SABS and ordered against its further use.
There is of course also the Consumer Protection Act to rely on if a green claim is too good to be true, or simply vague and unsubstantiated. This Act prohibits any misleading trade descriptions that are direct or indirect indications of the ingredients, material, and mode of manufacturing or production of a product. The fines for any contravention of this Act are stiff and are likely to act as some deterrent against GreenWashing.
In the end, it would appear that although there is protection against the use of misleading environmental claims, much will be left to the consumers of green products to police that they are indeed as good for their health and that of the environment, as claimed.
– Charne le Roux