Communicating environmental information is key to how businesses promote their products and report environmental performance. An organisation’s communications strategy should cover both processes and products as an integral part of an environmental management system (EMS). John Barwise explains what is required when making green claims for products and services, with reference to the Government’s recently updated Green Claims Code.
A “green” claim is information that appears on packaging or in advertising material that says something about the environmental performance or benefit of a particular product or service. Green claims may be presented as text labels, pictures or symbols and even as charts, such as the energy rating of white electrical goods. The UK’s Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is also a rating scheme that illustrates the energy performance of buildings.
Green claims are there to help customers and consumers make informed choices about the products and services they want to buy, but guidelines are essential to avoid companies making bogus “green” claims that can undermine consumer confidence. At an international level, ISO 14021: Environmental Labels and Declarations — Self-declared Environmental Claims (Type II Environmental Labelling), which is part of the ISO 14000 EMS series, deals with how environmental claims are made in advertising, in trade reports and on the Internet, and provides guidance on ways to present information that is meaningful and useful to a consumer. (See also the topic ISO 14001.)
The EU Ecolabelling scheme, introduced in 1992, harmonises various different national environmental product standards. The Ecolabel is a market-based voluntary scheme that incorporates life-cycle assessment covering design, production, marketing, and end use of products. There is a wide range of product categories, including beauty products, cleaning materials, textiles, household appliances and other domestic products — even holiday accommodation and tourist services. The iconic Ecolabel “flower” can now be seen on many of these types of products and services. (For more, see the topic on Ecolabelling.)
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the competent body for administering the EU Ecolabelling scheme in the UK and has recently updated its own guidance on green claims. The Green Claims Guidance is designed to ensure businesses get their environmental message right and to build consumer confidence in the products and services they buy.
The guidance applies to all forms of communications and marketing, including the use of symbols and graphics on packaging as well as website advertising. It is particularly useful to those organisations making self-declarations and who are not part of a certifiable EMS or other “green label” scheme, such as the EU Ecolabelling scheme, although the guidance itself is aligned to the certification requirements of these standards.
An important principle of that alignment is that green claims must be consistent with consumers’ perception of the environmental aspects or impacts associated with particular products or services. According to Defra, the Green Claims Code update aims to:
support the development of future marketing and product claims on specific themes
enable the production of high-quality claims underpinned by robust evidence
control and eradicate misleading environmental advertising or product claims
counteract the risk of consumer cynicism to genuine claims
promote a level playing field on claims.
The guidance also highlights the benefit of having an overall environmental communications strategy that focuses on the environmental problems that should be addressed. The step-by-step Green Claims Code update includes the following steps.
Step 1: Relevance and benefit
Understanding the full impact of a product or service and ensuring the green claim is relevant. This should take account of the life-cycle assessment and be measured against key performance indicators (KPIs). Various examples are presented to illustrate what might be considered “relevant” in terms of measurable impacts and what might be misleading. Where comparisons are used to promote a competitive advantage, organisations should demonstrate this using comparative data so customers can understand the relative benefit.
Step 2: Clear and accurate claims
Green claims should be accurate, specific and unambiguous. Claims should define the scope or boundaries to which they apply, and the language used should be specific and include supporting information. Claims should be backed up with evidence and explained in plain language. Symbols or labels used to promote the product or service should be relevant and unambiguous.
Step 3: Substantiating green claims
Evidence to substantiate a claim must be robust and tested using the most appropriate standard methodologies. Organisations that make claims of future commitment to environmental performance or protection must be able to demonstrate this by publishing their strategic objectives that support this. The scope of future claims must also be achievable and relevant to overall corporate strategies, and organisations should report on progress.
While the Defra guidance is designed to help organisations making self-declared environmental claims, there are other reputable standardised declaration schemes that many customers and consumers are already familiar with. The Mobius Recycling Loop, for example, is probably the most recognised of all environmental symbols: the EU Ecolabel “flower” is also well known. Others include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Soil Association’s “organic” symbol, and the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) labelling scheme used for paints and decorative coatings. The Fairtrade Foundation’s Fairtrade Mark is an international certification scheme and EU-registered trademark set up to support economically disadvantaged farmers and producers, particularly in developing countries. Organisations that wish to use the mark must conform to rigorous economic, environmental and social principles set by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation.
Environmental labelling schemes go beyond the standard quality branding seen on many products or services. The familiar “kite” mark, for example, says a lot about the quality and safety of a particular product, but not necessarily about its environmental impacts. A star-rated hotel illustrates a level of luxury accommodation and service provided, but does not specify energy consumption or whether the food is from organic sources. Certified green labelling schemes include environmental criteria that enable customers and consumers to make value judgments about the products and services they buy. Further, with consumer preferences for “buying green”, whether it is a low-fuel car, a green-star holiday or an organic takeaway, this is something businesses cannot afford to ignore.
Further details of the updated Green Claims Code are available from Defra.