What is chemical greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the deceptive practice of dressing up harmful and/or toxic chemical products to create the impression of environmental safety and sustainability. As more businesses and consumers undertake sincere actions to lessen their impact on the environment, manufacturers have responded by developing effective, safer and more sustainable chemical products. This leads to a cleaner, safer and a more efficient industry which benefits everyone – businesses, employees, consumers and the environment.
However, demand for environmentally friendly products has also created a disingenuous marketing approach to position products as “green” without any substantive, or grossly over-stated, environmental benefits. Vague, unsubstantiated, misleading, confusing, false or deceptive claims disadvantage everyone. They create distrust and reduce customer confidence in legitimate environmental benefits, disadvantage ethical traders, and promote the use of toxic and harmful substances.
Green marketing and consumer Law
Australian businesses and consumers are legally entitled to rely on claims of environmental safety and sustainability. The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) is a schedule to the Competition and Consumer Act 2011. It makes it illegal for businesses to mislead or deceive customers and carries serious penalties for businesses that engage in these practices.
The ACL contains two main provisions affecting the way manufacturers, suppliers, advertisers and others make environmental claims. These provisions cover both making false and misleading claims directly, and a broad prohibition on more ambiguous and indirect deceptive conduct. The law applies to all forms of marketing including product packaging, product names, labelling, and across all advertising and promotional materials.
Making false claims
The ACL states that a business must not make any false or misleading claims about a product being of “a particular standard, quality, value, grade, composition, style or model, or having a particular history, or previous use”. All products must comply with any description that is provided in advertising or labelling.
This rule is straight forward and generally understood and expected by consumers and businesses. However, some marketing conduct, typical of Greenwashing, may be a little harder to spot.
Misleading and deceptive conduct
The ACL offers a broad prohibition of misleading and deceptive conduct. It is important to “note that the conduct only needs to be likely to mislead or deceive; it does not matter whether the conduct actually misled anyone, or whether the business intended to mislead”.
This conduct includes:
Creating a misleading first impression
Images used in packaging and advertising are representations. Using environmental pictures of forests, leaves, flowers, the earth, or animals can make a sweeping claim of environmental benefit that may be misleading.
Misleading business names or product names
The company name and product name should not create a false impression of its true green credentials.
Making broad or ambiguous claims
Stating vague benefits such as “green” and “environmentally safe” could mislead customers into thinking the product and its packaging causes no harm to the environment in its production, usage and disposal.
Making claims that “expressly or implicitly overstate an environmental benefit” may create an overall false impression of the environmental credentials of a company or a product.
Making inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims
All environmental claims on packaging, in advertising or through representatives must be made in good faith and able to be proven.
Environmental claims should only be made when there is genuine benefit of advantage. Claims should not be made that are “irrelevant insignificant or simply advertising the observance of existing law”.
Technical or scientific jargon
Environmental claims should be made in plain English. Technical or scientific jargon may be confusing to customers.
In some cases, not making appropriate claims about the nature of the product or packaging, when there is a reasonable expectation that information will be disclosed, may also contravene the ALS.
The law is designed to protect business and private customers from purchasing products through deceptive and misleading conduct. The risks to businesses from Greenwashed chemical products includes:
- Purchasing toxic, dangerous and environmentally damaging products, without being aware of the risks.
- Threatening your own business’ green credentials and reputation by using unsafe and harmful products.
- Losing money on products packaged and marketed to appear as if they provide an environmental benefit, which they do not actually deliver.
- Putting employees at risk from harmful, toxic or corrosive chemicals. Substances which are unsafe for the environment, are often unsafe for people.
How to protect your business
The best way to protect your workplace is to know the facts, and be aware that Greenwashing works in many direct and indirect ways to effect your perceptions about a product. Here are four ways to separate false and misleading claims, from ethical products that have real environmental benefits:
- Don’t rely on first impressions. The images on packaging and advertising materials, the name of the company and product, the infographics and the endorsements could be creating a false impression. It’s important to take a closer look.
- Are environmental claims specific, relevant and substantiated? Does the product packaging, SDS and advertising material give you information about the exact environmental benefits the product provides? If these claims are unclear and unprovable, you have every right to be skeptical.
- Do the claims stack up? Are the environmental claims being made consistent with what you know about the company, or what you can find out about the company and its products. Are the claims believable?
- Is there evidence of deception, masking, exaggeration, or leaving out information? Is there something about the product packaging or advertising that seems off? Do the words seem misleading or false, or does the product’s environmental credentials seem puffed up and insincere? Spending a little time reading between the lines and not accepting appearances at face value can help reveal the truth about a product.