Greenwashing has been increasingly in the firing line of NGOs, journalists and more recently regulators and lawyers across Europe.
Whether it comes to vague claims such as eco-friendly, sustainable, good for the planet, or images of greenery and nature on products, consumers have been bombarded with greenwashing by companies trying to ride – and profit from - the wave of growing environmental concerns.
But greenwashing is not just “cheating” consumers by convincing them to buy green(er) products and services, and often even pay more for them – it is also considered an unfair business practice, because it disadvantages companies that are genuinely investing in more sustainable practices.
At the end of March, the Changing Markets Foundation published an analysis of greenwashing in the food sector – with a particular focus on meat and dairy. The report, entitled Feeding us Greenwash, showed that misleading green claims in this sector are rampant, providing a veneer of sustainability for an industry that is responsible for around 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), a third of methane emissions and is the main driver of biodiversity loss. We have published over 50 examples on our website www.greenwash.com, where we already feature greenwashing examples from plastic and fashion.
The wild west of green claims
Interestingly, our research revealed that over 80% of all claims found through our investigation were related to climate. Despite the scientific consensus that beef is the most carbon-intensive type of food, we found beef products that were labelled as ‘climate positive’ (by Hipp), ‘net zero’ (by New Zealand’s largest meat processing company, Silver Fern Farms) or ‘low methane’ (by Coop, the third largest Swedish retailer). In the dairy category the investigation found products that claim to be ‘carbon neutral’ (by Friesland Campina and Yili), ‘carbon zero’ (by Fonterra) or under a carbon neutral pledge (by Lidl). Many of these products relied on offsetting, meaning that the companies were not focused on reducing emissions, but were making their climate claims on the basis of buying ‘carbon credits’ from projects that offset emissions somewhere else.
In addition to climate claims, we also discovered lots of subtle greenwashing, like images and language which wrongly suggest a product comes from small family farms or is natural or nature friendly. For example, we uncovered lots of dairy products with images suggesting that cows are permanently grazing in the fields. A recent investigation by Viva! showed that often milk with such images comes from “zero-grazed cows” which have never seen a pasture. Companies know that one of the biggest consumer concerns is animal welfare, therefore they like to give the impression that these products come from happy animals, hiding the fact that a large share of our milk and meat comes from industrial factory farms.
Impossible Net Zero targets?
Another common greenwashing tactics are companies’ adopting future climate or “net zero” targets. Currently over 850 of the biggest publicly traded companies have such commitments. The biggest meat company JBS’ net zero target made it to our greenwash list, it was announced more than 2 years ago as the “most ambitious commitment in the sector”, but the company still has not presented any plan on how it is going to achieve it. Meanwhile, our analysis shows that JBS is responsible for more GHG emissions than the annual emissions of France. A recent investigation by Al Jazeera also showed that JBS continues to source cattle from deforested areas and indigenous lands in the Amazon.
We have also investigated a net zero target from a self-proclaimed climate leader and one of the biggest food companies: Nestlé. Our report shows that the company is not prioritising climate actions based on science or following the recommendations of the UN High-Level Expert group on Net Zero commitments, which was launched as a new standard to prevent “net-zero greenwashing”. A significant blind spot of its plan is a lack of focus on their outsized methane emissions, which are two times higher than the entire livestock sector of Switzerland. Science tells us that cutting methane is the most important thing we can do in this decade to keep the temperature increase under control – it’s a vital emergency brake.
Consumers respond to these claims
Unfortunately, greenwashing seems to work. We conducted YouGov public opinion surveys in the UK and Germany, trying to establish, whether people are susceptible to some of the claims that we have discovered. It turns out that almost half (49%) of people surveyed regularly choose products with environmental sustainability labels or certifications and on average 35% are willing to pay more for climate and animal welfare labels. Yet, at the same time, they are concerned about corporate greenwashing (59%) and have particularly low levels of trust in sustainability claims about meat and dairy products.
So what needs to happen? Greenwashing is dangerous as it creates the illusion that companies are seriously implementing transformative changes, when this is not the case. For this reason, we need legislation to crack down on such practices. Recently, the European Commission published a proposal for a Green Claims Directive, which provides rules and guidance for the companies that are making green claims. Although not perfect, this is a step in the right direction. If adopted, companies will have to provide much more evidence for the claims they make and will also face much harsher penalties for misleading consumers. This will, I believe, result in significant reduction of green claims and dodgy certification schemes in Europe. Hopefully, it will also focus corporate attention towards real and urgently needed solutions for the climate and environmental crises. The clock is ticking down.