“Sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” – what do you mean and can you prove it?

Consumers increasingly want to make choices that are good for the environment. This is a trend that has been picked up by marketing departments worldwide, and as consumers we are increasingly told that the products we buy and the businesses we buy our products from, favor the environment. But all that glitters, it not gold, and some of this marketing is nothing but “greenwashing.” Consumer authorities have begun to take steps against such misleading marketing.

465877990

Thus, businesses that use references to the environment as a selling point must be aware, and make sure that their eagerness in promoting the steps that they take in order to be more environmentally friendly, are represented correctly and in a fair manner.

The Norwegian Consumer Authority is currently taking active steps against greenwashing, and has approached a number of major Norwegian businesses, including international retailer H&M, regarding their use of the term “sustainable” and other terms indicating that products are favorable to the environment.

The legal basis is the Norwegian implementation of Council Directive 84/450/EEC on misleading advertising, and the Authority’s approach may thus be of relevance in other EU/EEA countries.

The Consumer Authority encourages businesses to enable consumers to make sustainable and environmentally friendly consumer choices, but finds that marketing in sectors as diverse as retailing, energy, telecommunication, agriculture and entertainment, is misleading in terms of the actual environmental impact of the products promoted.  

According to the Authority, marketing a product or business as e.g. sustainable, require that it is made clear to the consumer why or in what terms the product or business is sustainable or environmentally friendly. Is it the materials, the production methods or something else? Green marketing should be specific, unambiguous and complete. The marketing must not give the consumer an unrealistic impression of the environmental impact of the product or business in question.

The Consumer Authority emphasizes that businesses must be able to document their environmental claims. The Authority also indicates that in order to use general terms such as “sustainable” in marketing of products, the product must be among the better one-third of the products in the market in terms of its overall environmental impact. If a business cannot prove this, the better alternative is to focus on the specific characteristics of the product that are favorable to the environment while ensuring that the marketing is sufficiently specific to ensure that it is not misleading.