Awareness of environmental and climate change issues is increasing, helped along in no small way by Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries such as Blue Planet II and initiatives such as Veganuary. According to the CMA, consumers in the UK spent £41 billion in 2019 on ethical goods and services – almost four times as much as people spent twenty years ago. The CMA is concerned that this increased demand for green products and services could provide incentives for some businesses to make misleading, vague or false claims about the sustainability or environmental impact of the things they sell.
The CMA wishes to better understand how consumer protection legislation such as the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 can be used to deal with false or misleading environmental claims that affect consumers. It is focusing on:
- how claims about the environmental impact of products and services are made;
- whether such claims are supported by evidence;
- whether such claims influence peoples’ behaviour when purchasing such goods and services; and
- whether consumers are misled by an absence of information about the environmental impact of products and services.
As part of its work, the CMA will also consider whether failing to provide all relevant information about the sustainability of a product or service – for example, whether it is highly polluting or non-recyclable – could mislead consumers and therefore break consumer law.
The CMA is looking across a wide range of sectors, although it is likely to focus on those industries where consumers appear most concerned about misleading claims, including textiles and fashion, travel and transport, and fast-moving consumer goods (food and beverages, beauty products and cleaning products).
The CMA wants to better understand the impact of green marketing on consumers, in line with the commitment made in its annual plan and is consulting with the public as well as with charities, businesses and other organisations to build a clearer picture of the issues in this area. Following the consultation, it plans to produce guidance for businesses on how they can best be transparent in the way that they market goods and services in relation to any claims made about environmental impact.
The CMA may also provide advice to government, based on the information that it gathers from the call for information and from its own research. It intends to publish its research to inform the public debate on these issues. At this point, the CMA has not reached a view as to whether or not consumer protection law has been broken. However, if it finds evidence that businesses are misleading consumers, then it will take appropriate action.
The ASA is often called upon to adjudicate on whether “green” claims are acceptable or misleading and provided some guidance of its own just this year.
Traders may be tempted to emphasise the environmental benefits of products for marketing purposes. They may also feel under pressure to demonstrate their environmental credentials as part of their corporate social responsibility objectives. However, the fact that the CMA is now taking an interest in this topic means that companies need to be very careful that they do not stray into the realms of greenwashing.
Increasing numbers of people are quite rightly concerned about the environment and want to play their part by being greener. Our role is to make sure that consumers can trust the claims they see on products for sale and don’t fork out extra for items falsely presented as eco-friendly.