On June 28, 2008, the Canadian Competition Bureau, in conjunction with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) released Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers that outlines new guidelines to help prevent greenwashing in Canada from getting any worse.
This news is especially timely as I was discussing the lack of guidelines and their effects on consumer’s trust in my earlier post, Wal-Mart, Sustainability and the Line.
Greenwash (a clever combination of green and whitewash) refers to intentionally or inadvertently misleading environmental claims, whether it be about the company practices or the benefits of their product/service. The term Green sheen has also begun to grow in popularity describing organizations that present themselves as adopting beneficial environmental practices, when they are, in fact, not.
Why Greenwashing Guidelines?
The idea behind the updated Canadian guidelines is that companies must be able to back up their environmental or green claims with respect their products/services or company. The goal is to eliminate unsubstantiated green claims and to reduce concerns that greenwashing is causing widespread skepticism and apathy in the consumer marketplace.
The guidelines outline what is absolutely discouraged and how to correctly make environmental claims that have not been verified by an independent third party. Vague or non-specific claims, such as ‘green’, ‘ozone-friendly’, and ‘energy-saving’, that imply that a product is environmentally beneficial or unharmful are discouraged. For example, a tire manufacturer can not claim their tires are ‘environmentally-friendly’ as tire production is high in carbon dioxide emissions.
What you can say, what you can’t
Basically, if you can’t back it up, you can’t say it. Not exactly a wildly novel idea but regardless it is a big move in preventing greenwashing from becoming even more pervasive. So, for example, previously a marketer could claim that their product was:
‘made of sustainable paper’
but now they must actually make claims that means something, like ‘made with 50% post-consumer materials’.
Canadian companies will have a one-year grace period to review and improve their environmental claims.
The International Greenwash Backlash Begins
Canada is by no means the first country to develop guidelines. The UK government has recently stepped up enforcement on green claims. In the last two weeks, it has cited Fiat for misleading advertising of the CO2 emissions of its cars, and EasyJet PLC for implying that its aircraft emitted 22% less CO2 than competitors’ aircraft. Exaggerating achievements to consumers will not cut it under the new policy of the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.
The US Federal Trade Commission is expected to soon revise its guidelines on environment-related marketing, which is woefully out of date. Some states have already gotten a jump on the FTC in regulating green labeling: starting January, 2009, all cars for sale in California will be labeled with a Global Warming Score.
Australia, France and Norway have tighter regulations backed by enforceable fines and penalties.
The future of Sustainability Marketing looks brighter
The increase in regulations will no doubt bolster companies that have invested in developing innovative green products to the detriment of competitors who have merely dressed up their old products with some green wrapping.