The environment department (DEFRA) has updated the guidance it provides to companies making green claims about their products, services or activities.
DEFRA published an earlier version of the guidance in 2003 but the range and use of green terms has grown rapidly since then. A draft version of the update was released for consultation last March (ENDS Report, April 2010).
The non-statutory document asserts that any claims made must be relevant, reflect a genuine environmental benefit, be clearly and accurately presented, and be able to be substantiated.
It also explains key terms and legal requirements, and provides advice on voluntary product labelling schemes.
The guidance should help companies to avoid breaching consumer protection laws and the advertising codes enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority. It also reflects specific information laws relating to products such as cars and electrical devices (ENDS Report, September 2010).
DEFRA also hopes the guidance will enable consumers to make more informed judgments about what they buy and help encourage the development of greener products.
The advice includes:
• Relevance and environmental benefit: Companies making green claims should ensure they have considered the full environmental impacts of their product, service or organisation and that the claim addresses impacts that are particularly relevant.
They should avoid claims that do not represent a real environmental benefit because, for instance, the measure taken is required by law or standard practice in their sector. Similarly, they should not promote improvements to their environmental impacts, or those of their products, if this has led to other undesirable environmental impacts.
Comparisons with other products or companies must be fair and meaningful. DEFRA recommends standard metrics are used and that comparisons are clearly explained.
• Presentation: Claims should be clear and not overstate the environmental benefit . Their scope should be clear and they should be expressed in simple language. Particular care needs to be taken with newer environmental terms which customers might misinterpret. These should be well researched before they are used.
Imagery and logos can also imply environmental benefit and these should be examined in a similar light to other environmental claims to ensure they are not misleading.
• Substantiation: A company making a green claim should be able to substantiate it with a clear set of evidence. Claims should only be based on well-established scientific beliefs and any data must be collected in accordance with relevant, up-to-date standards. Independent assurance is recommended.
Evidence to support claims should be accessibly to the public, perhaps on the company’s website. Where this information is commercially confidential, companies should look at ways it could be anonymised or shared with regulators.
Where a company makes a claim about its future performance it should ensure it has publicly available plans or a strategy for reaching its target. It should report its progress regularly and preferably seek third-party verification. If it becomes clear targets are going to be missed, it should be open about this and explain why.
Alongside the guidance, DEFRA has published a study of consumers’ understanding of green terms. This found familiarity with emerging terms such as ‘carbon footprint’ has increased significantly over the past few years. Nevertheless, some terms remain more intuitive and meaningful to consumers than others.
The term ‘footprint’ seems relatively easy to understand, the study suggests, whereas terms such as ‘neutral’ and ‘bio’ caused confusion. Context is also important, it says. Consumers are much happier with the idea of an environmentally friendly holiday than an environmentally friendly bank product.
DEFRA also commissioned research into the green claims being made in advertisements and on product packaging as part of the update (ENDS Report, April 2010).