Skip to main content

The consumer’s guide to UK action on greenwash

As the UK starts to crack down on misleading green claims, is eco-friendly shopping about to get easier? 

Sian Conway-Wood from #EthicalHour and author of Buy Better Consume Less explores what the new Green Claims Code means for consumers.

Walk along any aisle in the supermarket today and you’re likely to see dozens of products claiming to be ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ - from bamboo toothbrushes to flushable wipes, food items in “50% less plastic packaging” and even some items claiming to be “100% eco”.

Yet, up to 40% of green claims made online could be misleading consumers, by being too vague, omitting important information, or even outright lying about their environmental credentials, according to a 2021 review by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Growth in greenwash

As our awareness of the climate crisis has grown exponentially in recent years, demand for sustainable alternatives has skyrocketed. But unfortunately, so has greenwashing - with many companies deciding that it’s cheaper to put their budgets into marketing, advertising, PR and packaging that makes them look green and eco, than it is to actually spend the money changing their supply chains and processes.

Sustainability can be difficult for companies to understand, and making changes to global supply chains takes time. But it’s also a very PR friendly message that can allow businesses to reach new customer bases and leverage higher price points - so it’s natural that they would be pursuing this as a competitive advantage. And as with any strategic change of direction, it’s likely that mistakes will be made along the way.

Sometimes the greenwashing is accidental: well-meaning companies overstating their achievements or not evidencing their claims properly. Other times, it’s intentionally misleading, or even outright lying - as was the case with the VW ‘Diesel Dupe’ emissions scandal which came to light in 2015.

Woman holding two takeaway cups of hot drinks

What does government action on greenwash mean for consumers?

This is why the CMA have now released a new Green Claims Code - a piece of guidance aimed at helping businesses to ensure that any green claims they’re making are truthful and don’t mislead well-meaning shoppers.

So does this mean that eco-friendly shopping is about to get easier?

The answer is maybe more complex than we as ethical consumers want to hear. 

Misleading marketing, advertising or claims made on packaging (whether about eco credentials or any other features and benefits of a product) are already against the law.

Consumer protection laws and trading standards are in place to stop us getting misled when we shop. Unfortunately though, sustainability is often such a grey area, that until now, it’s been easy for companies to greenwash, both accidentally and on purpose. And the more aware consumers are becoming, the more sophisticated greenwashing is getting.

The Green Claims Code guidance is essentially just a reframe of existing legal responsibilities - with a particular focus on how companies should (and shouldn’t) talk about their eco efforts. So it’s likely that this will be a helpful resource for the companies that are trying their best but find sustainability confusing, and the ones that are genuinely trying to make a change. As for the intentional greenwashers? If they were comfortable pushing the limits before, it’s unlikely that this new guidance will deter them.

However, we have already seen advertising authorities begin to crack down on greenwashed advertising since the release of the Code, and they have been very clear that this is just the start. 

In January 2022, alternative milk brand Oatly had a marketing campaign banned by UK advertising watchdog the ASA for misleading viewers over its green credentials. Their advert claimed that “climate experts say cutting dairy and meat products from our diets is the single biggest lifestyle change we can make to reduce our environmental impact”. However, upon investigation, the ASA found that this was one climate expert’s opinion being framed as ‘a definitive, objective claim based on scientific consensus’ and would therefore be likely to unfairly mislead the public, so the ad was banned.

Drinks company Innocent also found themselves facing an ASA ban in February 2022, for claiming that drinking its smoothies is good for the environment, despite their products being sold in plastic bottles. In response, Innocent (ultimately owned by Coca-Cola) cited their B Corp status and commitment to being carbon neutral by 2030 - but the ASA proceeded with the ban, saying that, although they are undertaking action to reduce their environmental impact, Innocent cannot demonstrate that their products have a net positive environmental impact across their full lifecycle - a key component of the Green Claims Code.

Good news for eco-friendly consumers

Advertising standards are clearly becoming more aggressive in their approach to misleading green claims, which is good news for eco-friendly consumers. Hopefully these high profile bans will act as a deterrent, encouraging companies (and the advertising agencies they employ) to fully risk assess their campaigns and ensure their green claims are evidenced properly - which will make it easier to distinguish which products align with your values.

The Green Claims Code also gives consumers and campaigners a clear tool with which to challenge companies, ask for more evidence and even lodge complaints if they feel that companies are greenwashing. The investigation into Oatly was a direct result of the advert receiving 109 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, and the investigation into Innocent was driven forward by complaints from environmental groups.

While it might not put a complete stop to greenwashing, the Green Claims Code will certainly help companies understand their obligations, assess how embedded their sustainability commitments really are, and be accountable to consumers and advertising standards if they fail to demonstrate enough evidence to back up their eco claims.

Find out more

To find out more about the Green Claims Code and what it includes, #EthicalHour have published a guide to help businesses understand the claims and look out for greenwashing by companies.

Go to the Ethical Hour website and access the guide.

About the author:

Sian Conway-Wood is an ethical marketing and communications strategist, founder of #EthicalHour and author of the book Buy Better Consume Less. She works with ambitious cause-driven startups, charities, NGOs, CEOs, political parties and lobby groups to create change through the power of communications. In 2018 she was named the UK’s Green & Eco Influencer of the Year, and UK Influencer of the Year again in 2020.