CBI chief’s call for green ad standards causes alarm

From packets of crisps and toilet tissue to fridge freezers and paints, brands are going all out to proclaim their green credentials. The UK consumer is overwhelmed with a deluge of labelling and logos either exulting a brand’s green stance or urging a call to action.

As the demand for green products has accelerated, companies have increasingly used ethics and the environment as a hook to market products, with little or no verification of the data being reported.

Marketers increasingly touting the greenness of their products have contributed to the confusion about which environmental claims are true, leading some industry experts to warn of “green fatigue”.

CBI director general Richard Lambert is calling on the advertising industry and businesses to develop a standard to eliminate that confusion. In a speech to the Advertising Association last week he said: “The idea that customers should be able to consider the environmental impact of a product when making their purchase choices makes sense. But it’s a very difficult thing to do. The existing confusion will only be made worse if there are hundreds of different benchmarks to choose from.” 

What is ‘green’?
But with “green” covering a host of schemes and aims – from carbon footprinting to recycling and using recycled materials – the consumer is at risk of being bombarded with marketing messages that make little sense. There is no standard definition for the term and unless otherwise specified and no independent verification for claims.

In the UK, some products are verified with the Ecolabel, which is backed by all EU governments. Products that are independently certified to prove that they are greener and perform as well as other leading brands can carry the Ecolabel flower symbol. However, the scheme doesn’t cover food, drink or pharmaceuticals.

Meanwhile, a number of UK food companies and retailers plan to introduce carbon footprint labels, showing the amount of carbon emissions emitted in bringing the product to the store shelf. Walkers Crisps has begun showing the Carbon Trust’s carbon reduction label on the back of its packs, Boots will add carbon labels to some of its own-brand shampoos in the summer and Tesco intends to introduce carbon labels across its product range.

WRAP, the recycling body which has a “swoosh” logo, is working with the grocery supply chain on agreeing a kitemark scheme but a spokesman for the body admits there is a long way to go. “The key issue is consistency,” he says. “If someone is going shopping at Tesco or Sainsbury’s they need to be seeing the same label, the same message and the information needs to be accurate. This is a non-competitive issue. It is something that retailers and brand owners need to come together on.” As Jim Prior, managing partner at The Partners, says/ “Nobody, though, knows what ‘green’ means. Everyone claims greenness, yet for every issue there is a counter argument.” 

Too much information
Prior believes people are bombarded with too much information, much of which is not agreed or clarified. “There is a big danger that people will be confused and in turn we are starting to see green fatigue,” he adds. “Consumers will start to tire of claims and labelling.” 

He says there are too many issues to allow the industry to come up with binging standards and points to the problems the Food Standards Agency is having with the comparatively simple matter of nutrient profiling.

Solicitor Yvette Hoskings-James, of HJ legal, agrees that industry standards would be hard to define. She says: “It is a complicated area and there is no one answer. The bottom line is whatever claim you make, be it green or scientific, it must be substantiated and backed by robust evidence.” 

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