UK Competition and Markets Authority Warns of Greenwashing Claims
Why the office printing market should care
Somebody had to say something. Whether its crying wolf or just stating the obvious, if you take the time to consider some of the claims made by marketing departments about the “greenness” of their organization and/or the products and services they sell, you may be left considering how such claims link to an environmental, social, or sustainability benefit. Last September, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had had enough of it.
To coincide with the COP 26 event, the CMA launched a new Green Claims Code based on current UK law. The goal is to explain to business how to best communicate their green credentials while reducing the risk of misleading consumers. It’s an initiative that builds out from the 2020 EU Circular Economy Action Plan which, although the UK is no longer a member of the EU, aims to make the environmental performance of companies and their products reliable, comparable, and verifiable across the EU. Keen to not lose post-Brexit momentum, the CMA is equally eager to assert its authority in the UK market.
Six Simple Principles
The CMA has set out code for business that has many parallels to the 60-year-old, self-regulating UK Advertising Standards Authorities’ (ASA) “legal, decent, honest, and truthful” mantra. The code recommends that businesses follow these principles when making environmental and wider sustainability claims:
- Claims must be truthful and accurate.
- Claims must be clear and unambiguous.
- Claims must not omit or hide important relevant information.
- Comparisons must be fair and meaningful.
- Claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service.
- Claims must be substantiated.
The code sets a high standard against which to measure the corporate social responsibility and sustainability claims of an organization.
Test Cases Appear
No code or interpretation of law is valid until there are test cases against which the standards can be measured—and the CMA has been quick to act. The most recent case involves the drinks brand Innocent. Their TV ad titled “Little Drinks, Big Dreams” included lyrics such as, “We’re messing up the planet. We’re messing up real good. And filling up our bodies with more beige food than we should...”. Along with, “Reduce. Re-use. Recycle. Because there is no planet B. If we’re looking after nature, she’ll be looking after me.” The song was supported by animations of people in polluted environments contrasted against those in healthy, clean, and environmentally friendly locations with Innocent drinks. The ending ad voiceover muses, “Innocent. Little drinks with big dreams for a healthier planet.”
The ASA ruled against Innocent with complainants challenging whether the ad exaggerated benefits of the product on our environment, and that it was misleading to audiences.
In its defense, (amongst other points) Innocent owner Coca-Cola claimed that the ad was trying to demonstrate that recycling was better than throwing the product away. However, the plastic bottle and lid contained non-recyclable plastic.
The ASA explained the decision to ban the ad was because it was making misleading claims about planet pollution and how the public’s eating habits were contributing to the problem. The ASA added, “the ads implied that purchasing Innocent products was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact when that was not the case; we concluded that the ads were misleading.” Hence, Innocent was guilty of greenwashing.
Innocent is not the only company to fall foul of tightening monitoring of environmental and sustainability marketing. Alpro, who market almond and oat-based food products, has also had an ad banned by the ASA for a misleading “green” claim. And there are others in the same situation.
Not Just Businesses but Industries, Too
The CMA are not stopping at individual businesses. They see a bigger problem that can extend across industries, and they have announced that they will be looking very closely at the fashion industry. It is well-known that the textile market can be a significant user of energy and consume copious amounts of water in its production processes. Add in a reputation for questionable labor practices related to pay and conditions, and this is an industry in great need of change.
The print industry is supporting the textile industry’s efforts to change—whether it’s moving production of garments much closer to the market, reducing production run lengths, minimizing pattern cut waste, or developing better dyes and pigments with more economic application processes. Printing has a key role to play. But there are examples of greenwashing and the CMA plans to call for an end to these practices.
The EU and the US Are Also Involved
The EU estimates that there are more than 200 environmental labels in use in the region. With over 450 in use worldwide, so many labels can be confusing for consumers. Under a new consumer agenda launched in November 2020, the European Commission (within the framework of the European Green Deal) will revise EU consumer law to enable consumers to actively participate in its Green Transition.
The first agenda item concerns the Green Transition and includes the following provisions to empower consumers:
- Better inform consumers on the environmental sustainability characteristics of products, such as their durability or reparability.
- Protect consumers against certain practices, such as greenwashing or early obsolescence, and ensure they have access to reliable information.
- Promote companies’ pledges to sustainable consumption actions going beyond legal obligations.
- Repair products and encourage the purchase of more sustainable and circular products.
In March 2022, the EU stated that it will launch its much-anticipated Green Claims Initiative and is expected to mandate that companies will use the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodology when making environmental claims. It is expected that these new rules will extend to businesses making environmental claims to reduce greenwashing.
In the US, regulators—including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—have already begun testing self-regulation, focusing on false advertising in the fashion industry. The FTC has a series of Green Guides available, but these date back to 2012. The FTC also announced in July 2021 that its 10-year review of its Green Guides was on the schedule for 2022. California and New York have already started focusing on environmental claims, some with advanced intentions to bring new laws onto the statute book. The New York Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, is a good example.
What Does This Mean for the Office Printing Industry?
Whether you consider corporate social responsibility, governance, sustainability, environment, recycling, reuse, right to repair, remanufacturing, or any other popular term or acronym, our industry has been prompt with its claims, proof-points, and marketing collateral.
While some manufacturers will produce numerous web pages of infographics and claims made by the appropriate celebrities—identifying a simple, comparative truth between two more competing OEM’s, their products or services from a sustainability perspective is probably impossible.
For example, is it better for the planet if the consumer buys a tank equipped product for their home office versus one where the cartridges are delivered before they are empty? For the CIO or CTO trying to meet their own company’s targets against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, where can they get impartial comparative advice when renewing their printer fleets MPS contract? Their friendly OEM or their partners’ Business Development Manager?
Keypoint Intelligence Opinion
The office printing industries’ customer, whether in B2B or B2C markets, has a choice whether to print or not. Demographically, several generations do not have to make a digital transition journey; they were brought up with the screen rather than the printed page. For other generations for whom printing is a way of life, they are thinking twice (from an environmental perspective) before re-investing in the ability to print again.
Being clear and unambiguous in our environmental impact positioning, actions, and claims is becoming a necessity. The risks of being over ambitious or tenuous with those claims is becoming greater by the day.
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