Cleaning Up the Green Wash

Ottawa, Canada - Canadians may soon see the benefits of new environmental labeling guidelines released last week designed to clean up the practice of greenwashing. The code will officially condemn the use of marketing terms such as "green" and "eco" that appear without proper product lifecycle analysis.

Such terms "should be reserved for products/services whose lifecycles have been thoroughly examined and verified," according to an updated set of environmental labeling guidelines released by the Competition Bureau.

The Guidelines, Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers, developed in collaboration with the Canadian Standards Association, provide the business community with the tools to ensure that green marketing is not misleading, while providing consumers with greater assurance about the accuracy of environmental claims.

The Guidelines address a number of commonly used green claims and provides examples of best practices on how such claims can be used by businesses to comply with the false or misleading provisions of the laws enforced by the Competition Bureau. Among other practices, the Guide states that:

  • The use of vague claims implying general environmental improvement are insufficient and should be avoided;
  • Environmental claims should be clear, specific, accurate and not misleading; and
  • Environmental claims should be verified and substantiated, prior to being made.

"Consumers should not be misled by false environmental claims," said Sheridan Scott, Commissioner of Competition. "Businesses should not make environmental claims unless they can back them up. In the end, this will benefit legitimate businesses and consumers by bringing greater accuracy in advertising to the marketplace."

"Environmental claims are of increasing importance as new and innovative "green" products appear in the market daily," says Suzanne Kiraly, President, Standards, Canadian Standards Association. "CSA utilized its expertise in developing standards that can assist Canadian businesses and advertisers to make more accurate environmental claims. This will help consumers to make informed choices when purchasing products that claim to have a lower overall impact on the environment."

The Bureau recognizes companies may wish to reassess their advertising and labelling in light of the Guide. A one-year transition phase will allow legitimate businesses to change their marketing practices, if necessary, and will also allow the Bureau and CSA to raise awareness and understanding on the new environmental guidelines.

During this one-year transition period, the Bureau will not hesitate to pursue egregious cases of deceptive environmental claims.

Although the Guide is not law, following the best practices outlined will help businesses to avoid making misleading claims that contravene the laws enforced by the Bureau. The Guide will be used by the Bureau to assess environmental advertising that raise concerns under its legislative mandate.

Some argue the voluntary nature of the rules and the fact Canada lacks specific standards that spell out definitions for green claims means consumers may still not be able to trust the message displayed on product labels.

Douglas Macdonald, of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Environment says that, since companies have been using images associated with nature, freshness and cleanliness to promote their products for decades, Canada should adopt rigorous standards similar to those in place for food labels in order to reduce false or misleading claims.

In Great Britain, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) released its Annual Report 2007 in May. The ASA said it dealt with record numbers of complaints about environmental claims as advertisers increasingly sought to promote their ‘green’ credentials.

In the United States the Federal Trade Commission has announced the third in a series of public workshops being held as part of the agency’s regulatory review of the "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims," commonly known as the Green Guides. The Commission’s first Green Guides workshop, held in January 2008, examined issues concerning the marketing of carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates. The most recent workshop, held in April, examined green packaging claims.

In May, Futerra Sustainability Communications released a guide (PDF) that analyzes the current state of greenwashing and what’s being done about it.

Back in Canada Brendan Ross, major case director for misleading advertising and labelling at the Bureau said the Guidelines go beyond the labelling of a product and deals with advertising too. "We want to ensure that the information going to consumers is accurate and not false."

Additional examples and explanations can be found in the Backgrounder to the Guide.

The Full Guidelines are available from the Competition Bureau website

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