Green, sustainable, eco, Net Zero, low-carbon… from consumer goods to services, the market is flooded with claims of environmental friendliness. But how much can we believe, and how much is ‘greenwashing’? Danish law now requires such claims to be correct and clearly worded – and companies must be able to substantiate them. Felicity Landon reports
Green or greenwashing? The Danish Marketing Practices Act is clear – if you want to make claims about being environmentally friendly, then you must be able to prove them. On top of that, the claim must be based on a Life Cycle Assessment of your products – not just one element of the supply chain.
The Danish Consumer Ombudsman has issued new guidance on the use of environmental and ethical claims in marketing, emphasising that marketing may not be misleading and that factual information must be substantiated.
Anyone imagining that this is just a ‘Danish issue’ would be mistaken. As Rasmus Elsborg-Jensen, CEO and founder of Copenhagen-based consultancy and software company ReFlow, says: any company marketing a product in Denmark must adhere to this regulation.
“For shipowners and all in the maritime supply chain, this is not something we can just isolate to Denmark – or you would have to have separate marketing operations and social media. This is a legal requirement and if companies do not live up to these guidelines, they can be held financially liable,” he says.
The ombudsman is a powerful mechanism as watchdog for consumers in Denmark, adds Elsborg-Jensen. “The Marketing Practices Act says you can’t say anything false. Now it has been specified exactly what this entails with environmental claims, so it is very hard for companies to say this is a ‘grey zone’ for them.”
Over the past couple of years, our vocabulary has grown both as consumers and as businesses, he notes. “It is very hard to drive to work without seeing trucks or commercial vehicles using words like sustainable, CO2 neutral, low-carbon. What I am very sceptical about is – what is behind these words? What is it that makes them carbon neutral? The new regulations mean companies cannot use terms that misguide consumers.”
Elsborg-Jensen, who is an EU European Climate Pact Ambassador, points out that the pinnacle of the ‘green’ pyramid is in fact ‘avoidance’ – not buying the product at all. At the bottom, the least desirable action is disposal. In between these two come the circular activities of recycling, refurbish, repair and re-use.
The Marketing Practices Act says you can’t say anything false. Now it has been specified exactly what this entails with environmental claims
It is too easy to describe a vessel, for example, as ‘zero emission – and that is utopia’, he says. “But you must look at the life cycle of the vessel. Just because you put green fuel in the tank doesn’t make the ship green if you have not addressed the emissions from the ship itself. You might have shifted the burden – installed new technology, put different fuel in the tank that will not emit GHGs – but does that new technology create some kind of toxic waste in the supply chain or require a whole new supply chain to transport this material or factories to produce it? It is important that we look at the consequences and lifecycle of our change.”
The MPA guidance states: “If you use climate or environmental claims on your marketing, they must be correct and clearly worded so that consumers immediately understand them. You must also not omit essential information.”
It also notes: “You must be able to substantiate the factual claims.” These claims must normally be supported by statements or studies carried out by or verified by independent experts.
The guidance says that you must be able to substantiate general claims about your company or product being green, climate friendly, and so on, and this must be based on a Life Cycle Assessment. The recommendation is that ‘general’ claims are substantiated with information about specific benefits – and these “must not only have a marginal impact on the climate/environment”.
“Individual claims will be perceived by consumers as an indication that the product does not have a negative impact on the environment/climate. As all production affects the environment/climate, it is therefore in principle misleading to use this type of claim in marketing.”
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