Green claims on supermarket labels

Supermarket items make all sorts of green claims but can you trust them?
 
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  • Updated:6 May 2008
 

01 .Greenwash

Woman

In brief

  • Many green claims are neither supported by evidence nor well explained, but the good news is there are some reliable green labelling programs.
  • When a product has one green claim, it’s usually got a few. Our investigation of non-food supermarket products with green claims found 637 claims on 185 items — an average of over three claims each.
  • By using our tips you can start to sort the true green claims from the greenwash. But we need stricter regulation of green claims.

Greenwash is deceptive marketing designed to portray a company or product as caring for the environment.

CHOICE is campaigning to make sure green claims are honest and useful, because consumers should be able to sort the true green products from the greenwash.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Avoiding greenwash: what to look for

The trick with green 'spin' is that you won’t always be able to tell you've been duped. You might even suspect something’s wrong, when in fact it’s legitimate. We need better regulation of green claims, but in the meantime here’s what you can do to minimise your risk of being greenwashed.

No distractions Think about the impact of the product itself. It’s great if the packet is recyclable or biodegradable too, but it’s not the main point. Ignore green pictures and unofficial logos.

Specific and precise Look for precise claims that explain and give evidence. For example, high percentages and guaranteed minimums of post-consumer recycled content.

Full ingredients Listing of all ingredients in plain English, not just the active ingredients required by law. Plain English is notably lacking in the ingredients labelling of many cleaners and personal care products.

Whole lifecycle Look for evidence that the whole life of the product is handled with care, not just one part of it. Emphasis on one technical aspect (such as 'biodegradable') might be masking a poor environmental performance in other areas.

Third party certified To relevant Australian or ISO standards (International Standards Organisation) or other recognised schemes. For example, certification to ISO14001 is about ongoing improvement to the company’s environmental management processes; it doesn’t guarantee the product has a low environmental impact.

Helpful contact info Be suspicious if there’s no robust evidence of the green claim on the pack and no easy way to obtain it when you get home. Don’t support a manufacturer that doesn’t want you to be able to find out more about them.

Video: The Green Shopping Challenge

Just how easy is it to shop green? We send four secret shoppers to find out.

 
 

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Claiming the earthShower power

It's not difficult to find misleading green claims on the supermarket shelves.

The bathroom cleaner Shower Power claims it "meets or exceeds Australian Standard AS1792/1976 for biodegradability". But that Australian standard was withdrawn in 1998.

We were told by its makers in January that Shower Power had just been certified to the new standard, and was rolling out new labels.

But in April at the time of writing, we still found products on the shelves referring to the old standard and the website hadn’t been updated.

A packet of Glad Tuff Stuff garbage bags claims "when properly incinerated, polyethylene breaks down to carbon dioxide and water vapour". But what about the rubbish you put in the bag?

 

Why make green claims?

Green claims are about environmental sustainability, recycling, energy and water efficiency, or impacts on animals and the natural environment. They can be self-declared statements, symbols and graphics on product packages and labels. Label

A lot of products are emblazoned with images of the globe, pictures of foliage, official-looking environmental icons, and names like eco, natural, planet, green and enviro. Many green claims are on the rear label, or stamped into the packet.

Even if you search for the softest loo paper rather than the greenest, and only glance at the green claims or read them once you’re home, their presence could make you feel that bit more satisfied with your purchase and likely to buy it again.

Green claims are subject to the Trade Practices Act, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is able to take action against dodgy claims. Australia also has a voluntary standard for green claims, AS 14021, which is designed to foster consumer confidence.

Unfortunately, not all green claims can be relied upon. North American marketing firm TerraChoice has defined 'six sins' of greenwash:

  • vagueness
  • giving no proof
  • fibbing
  • hiding environmental tradeoffs
  • simply being the lesser of two evils
  • irrelevance

CHOICE's Green Watch investigation

We carried out a green claims investigation at some representative supermarkets. Our Green Watch team picked up and read the labels on non-food items in three stores from different chains in Sydney in January and March 2008.

Included were items like A4 paper, plastic bags, laundry detergents, surface cleaners, insect sprays and toilet paper. We didn’t look at food, because CHOICE deals with the ins and outs of claims like organic and free range in other articles.

On 185 items that had green claims, we found 637 claims — that’s an average of over three each. Some of these repeated the same or a similar claim, for example on the front and back.

There are a lot of green claims in the cleaning aisle of the supermarket, on things like laundry detergents and cleaning sprays. We found one all-purpose cleaning spray with 19 claims — the most on a single item. We didn’t spot many green claims beyond 'natural' and 'pure' on personal care products like shampoo. Yet in the toilet paper aisle, it’s hard to find items without green claims.

So are these green claims any good?

We weren’t able to check every claim. But unfortunately, it’s easy to spot Australian examples of each of the six sins identified by TerraChoice. These are discussed in detail in the following page (Six greenwash sins).

Green claims 

Vagueness

Green claims that could be described as 'vague' include:

  • "Environmentally" [add adjective], for example, "environmentally friendly"
  • "Natural", "pure"
  • "Renewable"
  • "Recycled"

As well as these frequent claims, it’s pretty obscure to claim any of the following terms without any evidence as to why: eco, earth, enviro care, save environment, greener or plant-based. And claiming "chemical-free" sounds silly when even water is a chemical. Treat with caution any claims that are vague and don’t have supporting information.
Label
Here are some more examples:

  • "100% natural based actives".
  • "We take our environment seriously".

More useful, specific claims might contain reliable information on how much of the product is made from renewable ingredients and evidence they’re harvested sustainably.

  • "Up to 40% recycled plastic".
  • "Where possible recycled paper is used".

Claims like this might sound great, but don’t guarantee any recycled content.

As for this one — "All manufacturing paper is reclaimed and recycled" — well it's great that the maker is reducing waste, but the paper is still only being used for the first time. At least this one’s specific enough for you to spot the truth: some products just claim 'recycled' without specifying the source. Making use of 'pre-consumer' offcuts from the manufacturing process is different from 'post-consumer' recycling, which finds new uses for used materials.

Even when a claim looks specific and accurate, it can still be confusing if it’s easy to get the wrong first impression. Consider: Label

  • "30% recycled". Is that fabric softener really 30% recycled? With the green and gold logo, you could easily think so. But this only relates to the carton, not the product’s ingredients.
  • "Reduces material waste, chemical waste, water or energy use". What is the amount saved? Compared to what?

In summary, don’t rely on vague claims. Businesses should clearly and accurately explain why their products are greener or more environmentally friendly than other similar products.

No proof

Claims that have no evidence easily available are committing a greenwash sin too. Such claims include:

  • "No animal testing or ingredients".
  • "Sustainable forestry".

Animal testing statements don’t have to be certified, and some give little or no detail of what they really mean. "Product not tested on animals" sounds helpful, but individual ingredients in the product might still have been tested on animals. And "not tested" doesn’t mean "no animal ingredients", so if that’s an issue for you, be sure to read the label thoroughly.

Sustainable is a big claim. It deserves information and detail about the reasons for the claim, otherwise it’s too vague. For a practice to be sustainable it has to be able to be sustained indefinitely. Doing well on one environmental impact doesn’t make a product sustainable. In fact, 'sustainable' claims don’t satisfy Australian Standard 14021 for environmental claims.

This claim is seen most often on paper products in relation to forestry management. For example: "Our fibre supplies are from plantations and sustainably managed forests that meet appropriate forestry codes" is one tissue pack’s claim. "Only uses suppliers who conform to high environmental standards" is another example.

Without specific information — evidence about what forestry codes and standards are met, or what "not tested on animals" really means — it’s hard to believe such claims.

Fibs and false impressions

These can include such statements as:

  • "Certified environmental claim".
  • "Good environmental management".

Enviro informationIt’s illegal for a business to make a false representation about the standard, quality, value, composition or history of a product. Environmental claims should relate to real environmental benefits, and shouldn’t overstate them. For example, they mustn’t claim to be certified when they’re not.

In the TerraChoice study it was found that while fibbing wasn’t very common (1% of claims), false claims of certification were the most frequent fibs seen. This includes certification to out-of-date standards or made-up certification.

Woolworths has been under fire from unions and environmental groups for its claim of "sustainable forest fibre" on its Select range of paper products (napkins, toilet paper and kitchen towels).

This is a claim of exemplary environmental performance, and evidence available to the consumer is an official-looking logo and environmental management system (ISO14001) certification. Yet this particular certification is about ongoing improvements to the management process, rather than guaranteeing a high level of environmental performance or sustainable forestry.

Even after a thorough investigation, the ACCC could not form a concluded view about the Select claims. The remedy, to sticker over the claims and eventually remove them altogether, might be a belated win for honesty in marketing, but not the environment.

Recycling"Recyclable" and the triangle of arrows (Möbius loop) can be misleading if facilities don’t exist to do the recycling, or if the product simply isn’t recyclable. Plastics marked as recyclable with a '4' or higher in the middle of the arrows still aren’t recyclable in some areas because the facilities aren’t there.

Some products claim to be recyclable, but have so many different materials in them that they won’t be. One brand of razors would contaminate the recycling process if the paper inserts, foil decoration and moulded plastic stand were left inside the packet — an easy mistake to make. And a new laundry liquid bottle, although smaller, might be less recyclable than the old version because it’s now got three different types of plastic.

Hidden tradeoffs

This can include claims that a product is:

  • "Biodegradable" or "Degradable".

Green claims about single environmental issues might be technically correct, but can be a tradeoff for not telling the full or important bits of the story.

“Degradable” This term is seen on some plastic bags. There’s a difference between this, which means a product simply breaks into smaller pieces, and biodegradable, where living organisms can decompose it.

"Biodegradable" can be misleading if the product takes a very long time to biodegrade or requires quite specific conditions. What’s more, the claim may not be of any real benefit to the environment, if the breakdown process proves toxic.

Look for "readily biodegradable", but be aware that the Australian standard for surfactants (soap agents in cleaning products), AS4351, doesn’t require the entire product to degrade, just the soapy bit, which is only a small part of the product. Nor is the standard concerned about the safety of by-products when it does degrade (see Irrelevance below, for more on biodegradability of surfactant claims).

Lesser of two evils

Watch out for claims like this:

  • "Chlorine-free".
  • "Reduces use or waste".

For a product implying it’s greener than some other products in some way, the basis for the comparison really should be explained. These claims can sometimes be talking about the lesser of two evils, when there’s a third, even greener option available.

For example: "Elemental chlorine free" (sometimes written as ECF) is seen on things like paper products and nappies. It’s better for the environment than regular chlorine bleaching, but it’s really the lesser of two evils, because chlorine is still involved. There are products on the market that claim instead to be "totally chlorine free" (written as TCF) or unbleached.

Irrelevance

It would be easy for consumers to be swayed by irrelevant claims such as:

  • "CFC-free".
  • and mentioning links with environmental causes.

There are plenty of green icons and official-looking logos that are made-up and irrelevant. There are also products that sponsor or make donations to environment-related causes like zoos and drought relief. Some of these connections can be weak, so don’t let them exploit your concern for the environment.
Label
"Made from a renewable forest resource" Claims like this, which we found on toilet paper don’t help you decide which is the greenest toilet paper — all plants and trees are renewable. It'd also probably be too vague to meet the standard for environmental claims. Toilet paper was also rife with the indisputable but pointless claim of "biodegradable paper".

"CFC-free" CFCs were banned long ago for use in aerosol spray cans, so claiming "CFC-free" is irrelevant. Our investigation still found CFC-free or something similar written on most aerosol products. One company still wants kudos for stopping CFC use in 1976. We think it’d be more relevant to explain how they’re improving their environmental performance nowadays.

"Ozone friendly" The removal of CFCs as a propellant doesn’t mean the entire threat to the ozone layer has been removed, just reduced. Given this, common claims that a product is "ozone friendly", "ozone safe" and "it’s okay to spray" seem to us to be exaggerated.
Made up label
We saw an "it’s okay to spray" logo a lot. On Mortein Energy Ball Fly Killer, it even appears next to a statement and logo saying the spray is very toxic to aquatic life.

"Biodegradable" All detergents have to meet the Australian standard for biodegradability, so the claim is irrelevant unless the product can demonstrate it goes beyond the requirements. (See Hidden tradeoffs, above, for more on this.)

Then there’s the downright silly: how important is it for "biodegradable carton" to be written three times on an air freshener packet, when the product itself could contain irritants, has many other components and uses electricity throughout its life?

The following claims or logos on products are properly accredited and you can rely on them.

Animal testingNo animal testing or ingredients

Choose Cruelty Free (CCF) is a non-profit organisation run by volunteers. They survey and accredit companies that claim their products and ingredients are not tested on animals.

CCF’s Preferred Products List is available for free on their website or as a booklet.

GECAMulti-criteria claims

Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) is a not-for-profit organisation.

Its role is to check that products meet their voluntary environmental performance standards for the whole product lifecycle.

See GECA's website for more information.

No phosphate logoNo phosphate, No (added) phosphate (NP)

This is a voluntary industry standard. Some packaging uses a logo. On others the letters are simply written.

Recyclable (plastics)Plastic guide

The Plastics Identification Code is a voluntary industry program.

If an item is marked 1, 2 or 3, you can be confident that it's able to be recycled.

Ask your local council which other types of plastic are recyclable in your area.

Sustainable forestrySustainable forestry

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international not-for-profit organisation.

FSC encourages and recognises forest management that’s environmentally, socially and economically responsible.

See the FSC website for more information.

Water savingWatermark

Smart Approved Watermark is a not-for-profit voluntary program that assesses and endorses products which help reduce water use outside your home.

See www.smartwatermark.org for more details.

CHOICE verdict

Greenwash is out of control on supermarket shelves. We investigated this back in 1996 — and it’s much worse now. The range of claims has grown and many are unsubstantiated. Others are irrelevant, only a small part of the story, or downright lies.

The market is failing to provide consumers who want to go green with reliable information about which products have a lower environmental impact. It doesn’t have to be this way. A system that could fix the problem is within reach.

  • First, we need to see companies complying with the Australian Standard on Green Claims (AS 14021). At present this Standard is voluntary, and so widely ignored! As a matter of urgency the Standard should be made mandatory for the worst product categories for greenwash — household cleaners and paper/tissue products.
  • Supermarkets should get their own house in order. All green claims for supermarket 'own brand' products should comply with the Australian Standard and be certified against reliable benchmarks.
  • Industry Associations that cover companies supplying goods to consumers should make adherence to the Australian Standard a requirement for their members.
  • The ACCC, which recently released a useful guide to green marketing claims, should now target the area of green claims for additional enforcement action.
  • And the Australian Standard itself should be updated to reflect current environmental issues like greywater use and carbon neutrality.

Winner! Greenwash arms race

Manufacturers are arming their products with more and more green claims, to differentiate them from others.

Our investigation found an average of five green claims on each pack of toilet paper. Some even had eight or nine claims.

Toilet paper has the dubious honour of winning the greenwash arms race — consumers beware.

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