Carbon dioxide neutral?  Environmentally friendly?  Business and debatable statements

Carbon dioxide neutral? Environmentally friendly? Business and debatable statements

“Green” buzzwords about products are everywhere. Clothing, cosmetics, household items and food are usually described as “environmentally friendly”, “sustainably produced” or “natural”.

Although they seem to make environmental claims, there are no established definitions for these terms in consumer law.

So what can consumers do to find the right one in a forest of green claims?

Ireland’s national consumer agency, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, advises consumers not to take environmental claims at face value.

Instead, it tells people to investigate how they are backed up.

It also advises traders to assist consumers by providing evidence to support environmental claims and by adopting “reliable and recognizable certifications, approval stamps and labeling schemes”, such as the EU Ecolabel.

But it is for hard consumers, because unfounded environmental claims are widespread.

The Commission said that last year it participated in an EU Commission review of such claims together with other EU consumer agencies.

Across the EU, the survey showed that of 344 green claims examined on clothing, cosmetics and household equipment, almost 60% were not backed up and 42% were “potentially in breach of consumer law”.

Everyday products are usually described as “environmentally friendly”

“The cost of misleading advertising has never been higher,” John Gibbons, an environmental commentator, told Prime Time.

“We are in a time where we need strong, urgent climate action. Instead, we often get misleading statements through smart advertising.”

The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), the advertising watchdog of the advertising industry, said that when it comes to green issues, its code of advertising standards protects consumers.

The code only allows unqualified environmental claims to be made if they can be proven that “the product does not cause any environmental damage”.

Alternatively, traders can make a qualified environmental claim if they can demonstrate “an environmental improvement over competitors or their own previous products”.

Consumers can, and do, complain to ASAI if they are concerned that retailers are not following the advertising code.

For example, last year the authority asked Toyota to remove an ad that read “The car brand voted best to tackle climate change in Ireland also makes the country’s best-selling car.”

The authority accepted this ad because the claim that Toyota was voted “best” for dealing with climate change was not substantiated and was not substantiated.

The Advertising Standards Authority asked Toyota to remove an advertisement

It showed that in an unpublished survey, 10% of those surveyed had named Toyota when asked which car brand had done the most to tackle climate change. Other car brands were named by a lower proportion of respondents.

Toyota told Prime Time in a statement that the ad was corrected and resumed with the word “most” instead of “best”.

“In no way would we ever knowingly attempt to mislead consumers and we strongly reject any suggestion that we should do so,” the statement said.

The authority also found Mitsubishi Ireland 2019 after a complaint regarding an advertisement for its Outlander plug-in hybrid vehicle.

The ad described the vehicle as “an electric car with 4 x 4 control and with a range of over 600 km”.

The authority considered the advertisement to be misleading because it described the car as an “electric car” with such a range without clarifying that it was in fact a hybrid vehicle – suggesting that the range only applied to the electric battery.

The ad had five times referred to “electric” without qualifications, the authority said.

Mitsubishi said that as soon as the original complaint came to their notice, “the ad was withdrawn from circulation” and that it instructed dealers “not to use it”.

The car brand told Prime Time that it “would never knowingly mislead consumers”.

Similarly, in 2020, the UK Advertising Standards Authority found that Ryanair’s claim to be “the lowest emission carrier in Europe” was misleading – and that the evidence provided was insufficient to substantiate the claim.

Ryanair told Prime Time that it was “both disappointed and surprised that ASA issued this decision”, given that they believed they had “fully complied with the advertising regulations”.

An ad for Mitsubishi’s Outlander plug-in hybrid vehicle turned out to be misleading

The only problem with this system of monitoring misleading claims, according to critics, is that it leaves the burden of complaining to consumers.

“Companies can outsource all kinds of materials and it’s then up to the public to, at their own expense and at their own expense, capture the industry,” Gibbons said.

Orla Twomey, CEO of ASAI, said they also monitor ads and provide advice when needed. Although they do this annually, they have not yet focused on green claims.

Ms Twomey said the agency is currently testing software that can detect certain phrases in ads – significantly increasing their ability to capture misleading claims in real time.

Even when certain terms are identified, however, there is another problem: The scientific basis for many claims is questioned, and many green terms do not have a clear definition.

The European Commission is also proposing the introduction of stronger consumer rules for green claims by updating its directive on unfair commercial practices.

“One of the things we do is work with our European colleagues to assess how we assess sustainability and environmental claims,” ​​said Twomey.

She hopes that advertising watch dogs and advertisers themselves will receive more guidance.

One thing that is not currently defined in the ad code is the term “carbon neutral”. A number of companies use this when selling products or services related to fossil fuels.

The authority found in favor of the fuel retailer Applegreen in relation to advertisements that said that its PowerPlus diesel offered “carbon-neutral driving”.

Advertising Standards Authority found in favor of fuel retailer Applegreen

It accepted Applegreen’s evidence that the use of the phrase “carbon neutral driving” did not mean that it was a carbon neutral fuel. Rather, the emissions generated by driving were offset by a carbon dioxide reduction program in Africa, which was verified independently by an accredited company.

In a statement, Applegreen told Prime Time that “PowerPlus fuel is not a carbon neutral fuel and is not sold as such. We offer certified carbon neutral driving”.

This is achieved with a “shutdown program that is independently verified”, it said.

The carbon credits, it continued, are from an initiative for clean water in Africa, which “reduces the need to boil drinking water, which saves thousands of trees from being burned annually and thus reduces emissions by about 60%.”

It also noted that it had invested in an Irish forestry program in connection with its carbon-neutral driving initiative, but that it did not take this into account as part of its offset calculations.

Gibbons is critical of companies that sell fossil fuels and make green claims at the same time.

“They want it both ways. They want to sell fossil fuels and be seen as green,” he said.

Many such companies use carbon offsets to justify their claims – balancing carbon emissions with investments in sustainable projects, which try to reduce it by the corresponding amount.

“We have a whole global offset market, a very profitable multi-billion euro market to sell offset.”

Purchasing offset only contributes to “more confusion,” Gibbons said. “What we are not going to say out loud is that we have to de-scale everything we do.”

Mark Carlin, Coillte’s CEO, said the stage agency, which manages 440,000 hectares of forest in Ireland, welcomes investment from companies trying to improve their so-called ESG, or environment, sustainability and governance, credentials.

Coillte welcomes investments from companies trying to improve their environmental requirements

However, he noted that investing in Coillte’s domestic tree planting program should not be considered as carbon offsets.

“It is important for companies that invest with us – that it is for them to be able to report on their environmental and social benefits. But what is really important is that it is not an exception to reducing emissions.”

For example, Coillte only measures the carbon absorption of its trees after 10 years of growth, as most native species mature over many decades.

In the absence of long-standing EU consumer rules on environmental claims in advertising, the French and Dutch governments have gone further and introduced stronger consumer protection.

But such rules can only go so far, given the complexity of environmental claims.

Are advertising guards equipped to make rigorous assessments? ASAI said that so far it has not had to seek external scientific advice on climate-related claims.

“We are not judging climate change per se,” Twomey said. “We look at the information we have received and we make an assessment of it.”

“We have a lot of expertise within the organization – though not climate expertise, but in assessing evidence. So evidence is evidence.”

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