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
 

03.Six greenwash sins

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?

 

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