Greenwashing: dodgy green claims

CHOICE, the consumer activist group1, have a longstanding campaign targeting misleading “green claims” in advertising.

Photo by Daveybot

Organisations may mislead consumers by promoting themselves and their products as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ and so on, when in fact they are having a negative or negligable impact.

This behaviour, also known as greenwash, has serious consequences. It can prevent real green change by:

  • diverting spending towards products with negligable or non-existent benefits
  • preventing truly green products from differentiating themselves
  • encouraging more greenwash, rather than product innovation.

CHOICE’s latest dodgy green claim target is carbon offset schemes, as heavily marketed by airlines, motor manufacturers and power companies.

It’s hard to judge the relative value of offsets, especially because they’re based on an average car driven an average distance, not how much your car will be driven. As the offset market is largely unregulated, it gets tricky to compare products or judge which are of good quality. This is especially true given there are so many methods of creating an offset — from giving away energy-efficient light globes to tree planting or investing in renewable energy.

The global Voluntary Carbon Standard could help sort this out, but it’s fairly new and, as its names suggests, voluntary. The market for carbon offsets will probably get more confusing before it improves.

CHOICE’s activism (in concert with other concerned environmental lobbyists) bore fruit last year in reports that the The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) would investigate and report on various greenwashing claims, and take enforcement action where it found a case to answer.

In addition to loose green language the regulator will pay particular attention to the use of carbon offset programs, amid growing concern that some of the marketing may amount to little more than hot air.

ACCC commissioner John Martin warns the Trade Practices Act applies whether a business is marketing ‘green’ motor vehicles, ‘green’ flights, or ‘green’ toilet paper.

“The ACCC intends to ramp-up its green compliance activities with a combination of business and consumer educative initiatives and targeted enforcement action,” he said.

Carbon offset schemes are becoming more and more popular, while schemes to actually reduce emissions rather than offset them continue to lag, largely due to a broad refusal to accept the need for radical change now to prevent future costs skyrocketing. Some folk want a carbon tax added to virtually everything, and how is that money to be spent? On schemes that work or on schemes that don’t?

Many people appear to be taking their eye off the ball regarding carbon emissions and placing all their trust in carbon offset schemes, which is one reason the ACCC is taking such an interest – are people getting what they are paying for?

Rupert Posner, Carbon, Smoke and Mirrors:

The ACCC can investigate whether customers are getting what they think they are buying, but it can’t demand they use any particular standard. When it comes to offset credits customers need to have confidence that a credit actually removes a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere.

The biggest area of concern here has been with the planting of trees. A number of companies provide offsets by planting a certain number of trees on behalf of customers to offset their emissions. The problem with this approach is that the trees don’t actually offset the emissions for some time – indeed they normally take up to 100 years to achieve the full environmental benefit. If customers think their emissions have been offset immediately, then in this case they have been misled. This is why internationally recognised standards don’t recognise the carbon savings until they have been achieved.

The second area the ACCC is investigating is where companies make claims that their products are carbon neutral or green. This area has even less standards, so it makes it harder to police. The key here is for companies to clearly tell their customers exactly what their green claims are. If a car is sold with offsets to compensate for the petrol used in its first year of operation, while this is a good thing, it is clearly not a green car. If a company gives its customers the impression that its products are greener than they actually are, then the ACCC has the opportunity to act against it.

The dodgy claims regarding the efficacy of token tree-planting as a carbon offset were at the centre of allegations earlier this month laid by the ACCC against GM-Holden for claims in their ads for the latest SAAB.

It’s very easy for the unscrupulous to deliberately cheat consumers by greenwashing. It’s also unfortunately easy for well-meaning industries and retailers to believe that they are doing the right thing when their programs are not nearly comprehensive enough. Consumers need reliable standards to guide their choices, standards which are clearly understood and rigorously enforced. Submissions close on 15 February if you want to contribute to the ACCC’s issues paper on The Trade Practices Act and carbon offset claims. [link to preliminary paper (pdf)]

1. Just for Kate, here’s a link to last December’s 2007 CHOICE Shonky Awards for (ahem) unsatisfactory-to-say-the-least consumer products. I figure “shonky” is her sort of word. [back to top]

Categories: environment, law & order

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1 reply

  1. Hi all, I’m writing a submission so if you have any examples about dodgy claims of carbon neutrality shoot me a line at

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