After discovering that 40% of ‘green’ claims could be misleading consumers, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has this week released the Green Claims Code: a new anti-greenwash guide for all brands making environmental claims.
Misleading environmental claims limit the power of consumer market pressure to drive needed change. As Cecilia Parker Aranha (the CMA’s Director of Consumer Protection) told me this week, this is partly because greenwashing breeds cynicism amongst well-intentioned shoppers: “Trust in green claims is fragile and, unless brands provide the right information to consumers in the right way, there’s a risk that consumers will give up. That’s bad for green business, bad for consumers and bad for the planet.” In light of this, the Green Claims Code is a much-needed intervention in what is a crucial decade for the future of our planet.
But whilst the recommendations are designed to protect consumers and the planet, businesses also stand to benefit. A clampdown on greenwashing levels the playing field and gives legitimately ‘green’ businesses the chance to reap the commercial rewards. Cecilia Parker Aranha hopes the guidance will give courage to brands that want to communicate their progress: “We know some businesses – and perhaps smaller businesses, in particular – may be nervous about getting things wrong. We hope this guidance will help them to get it right.”
The CMA has given brands until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims comply with the law. So what can brands start doing right now to enable them to meet requirements?
1 – Audit your existing claims
Palm-oil free. Zero-waste. Carbon neutral. Shopper priorities in sustainability move fast.
With half an eye always on consumer trends, it might be tempting for brand marketers to focus their energy on making future claims compliant. But to de-risk your sustainability communications, it’s vital to start with an audit of your existing claims at brand and product level.
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Begin by stress-testing your published marketing communications against the CMA’s comprehensive recommendations. If you haven’t yet read the guidance, these fall into six key principles:
- Claims must be truthful and accurate
- Claims must be clear and unambiguous
- Claims must not omit or hide important information
- Claims must only make fair and meaningful comparisons
- Claims must consider the full life cycle of the product
- Claims must be substantiated
At Provenance, we recently launched a free-to-use sustainability communications rulebook to help brands make shopper-facing social and environmental impact claims with integrity. The Provenance Framework, designed in collaboration with field experts, helps consumer goods brands meet a number of the CMA’s requirements when making specific claims.
The framework’s 50+ claims were carefully designed to help brands communicate eco-credentials in clear, unambiguous shopper-friendly language. Brands can use it to identify all relevant information and suitable substantiation for each specific claim, alongside Publication Requirements to ensure full truth and accuracy.
2 – Start thinking about off-pack and online channels
The Green Claims Code also calls for a channels rethink. A striking (and vital) aspect of the guidance is the sheer depth of sustainability information that brands will need to provide. To ensure that claims are indeed ‘clear and unambiguous’, brands have a duty to educate consumers on certifications and claims – after all, in spite of its ubiquity, only a third of UK adults have any confidence explaining what Net Zero means. With clear instructions to consider the entire lifecycle of products and include all information that might inform a shopper’s purchase, complying with the Green Claims Code will rely on smart use of packaging and ecommerce.
Communicating sustainability effectively within the limited real estate of printed packaging is an impossibility. Here, the CMA specifically encourages brands to surface sustainability information via QR codes, now a permanent fixture of post-pandemic life. As for sharing sustainability content online, the Green Claims Code recommends that information should be made available by a single click through link. For e-commerce and D2C brands that currently communicate with static ‘green’ icons, it’s therefore time to reconsider.
However, as Cecilia Parker Aranha explained, “it’s really important that businesses don’t hide important caveats or limitations of the claim. QR codes and links to other information are really important for building trust in the claims brands make. But if a label says ‘Sustainably Sourced Fabric’ and a QR code links you to information which explains that only 5% of the fabric in the garment is sustainably sourced, that’s likely to be misleading and a problem from a consumer protection perspective.”
3 – Shoot for integrity and compliance will follow
For many brands, complying with the Green Claims Code will require a significant shift in mindset. To protect public reputation and avoid regulatory penalties, marketers need to commit fully to integrity, and must no longer leave compliance to their legal counterparts. Those approaching the task with an attitude of “what can we get away with?” will soon pay the price.
Take, for example, the CMA’s call for both truth and accuracy. It’s not enough for claims to be factually correct – they must also give consumers an accurate impression of the environmental impact. Elsewhere, the regulator’s call to consider the entire lifecycle of products means brands who have until now overemphasised minor positives in their supply chains will need to think again.
At an organisational level, many brands will need to start by breaking the silos between marketing and sustainability. Marketers can’t describe what they can’t see, and delivering accurate, substantiated claims depends on close collaboration between the two functions. Make this a standing meeting: with sustainability data and best practice constantly changing, it’s not a one-off project – the brands that succeed will be those that establish efficient data flows from one to the other.
A golden opportunity for legitimate sustainability leaders
The legal penalties for failing to comply with consumer protection law may well keep some marketers up at night. Recent months have seen Coca-Cola, Oatly and Danish Crown facing greenwashing related lawsuits, and with regulators like the CMA upping the ante, this sort of action looks set to grow.
But for any who are unmoved by the legal threat, it’s worth remembering that the law, informed by public consultation, reflects rapidly evolving public expectations. Failing to meet the six principles outlined above is not only legally inadequate: it risks alienating your customer base.
However, whilst the risks of falling short are significant, this anti-greenwash guidance should in fact represent a huge opportunity for some brands. If consumer protection law succeeds in muting inaccurate and dishonest sustainability claims, the market advantage will swing rapidly to brands that truly have something to say. Those who have been doing the work to mitigate their social and environmental impact and who have the data to support their communications, have so much to gain by telling the story of their products credibly.
By acting fast, you can turn your investment in sustainability into a strong commercial advantage. If you haven’t yet, begin by familiarising yourself with the Green Claims Code.