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Greenwashing: What it is and why the UK watchdog is launching an enquiry

Date posted: 3 December 2020

What we buy can have a positive impact on the health of the environment and it’s great news that we’re becoming more conscious about what we’re buying and where it has come from. Last year £41 billion was spent on ‘ethical or environmentally’ friendly goods/services, but this can get complicated when brands begin to exaggerate claims or mislead well-meaning buyers.

Shopping Aisle

Unfortunately, it’s likely that we’re paying a premium for a product that claims to be more “environmentally-friendly” than it truly is.

Dr Laura Foster, our Head of Clean Seas said: “We’re concerned that consumers are confused about the environmental benefits of labels like ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’. Very few of these labels are backed up by standards which would prove that they’re more sustainable and often, companies don’t provide correct advice on disposal.

“If we’re consistently told that these products are ‘eco-friendly’ it continues to promote single-use behaviour. We need to switch to reusable alternatives which are ultimately better for the environment, rather than relying on questionable claims.”

The UK’s governing watchdog, in collaboration with the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, is to begin vetting these sorts of claims, mainly focusing on fashion, cosmetics, food and cleaning products.

Eco-buzzwords: fact or fiction?

How do we know if something is truly ‘compostable’? As most single-use products, whatever their claims, are likely to end up in landfill, this is a buzzword which, unfortunately, doesn’t come to mean much. For composting to take place, oxygen is needed. But, a well-managed landfill should have no oxygen - and so composting can’t happen, regardless of whether the product is compostable or not.

Most compostable products have to pass an industrial composting standard, which requires very specific conditions. Many local authorities don’t have an industrial composter, and even if they do they would remove products, like wet wipes or carrier bags, if they can’t tell whether they contain plastic or not. So even if the products we’re buying are actually compostable, it’s not a guarantee that they won’t just end up in landfill anyway.

What about fish? We’re also concerned that some claims of seafood being ‘sustainably’ or ‘responsibly’ sourced can’t always be backed up with evidence to support them. In other cases, there’s very little information provided on seafood labels, making it virtually impossible to know what kind of fish has been sourced or how sustainable it is.

You can show your support for the enquiry and get involved by sharing your shopping habits and experiences of greenwashing.

This questionnaire released by The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) asks about shopping habits and whether you look out for sustainable labelling when buying. If a product ‘looks’ sustainable in its packaging, will this affect your purchase?

Top tips to avoid greenwashing:

  1. Think about moving to reusable products as much as feasible
  2. When opting for single-use products, think about whether a suitable and effective disposal route
  3. For seafood, use the Good Fish Guide, which rates the sustainability of seafood. Look out for credible 3rd party eco-labels too, like MSC’s Blue Tick, ASC and Organic

Actions you can take