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Do your green product claims stack up?

Do your green product claims stack up?

I buy most of my groceries online – this saves me lots of time and keeps me clear of impulse shopping. So when I do have a proper supermarket shop, it is fascinating to observe the high rate of changes to product claims.

Flavour of the month (or year) is “green” claims – such as claims that a concentrated laundry product is environmentally sensitive (hey guys, I’ll settle for a smaller bottle that fits on the shelf) or that a fish product is produced “sustainably” (small comfort to the fish who ended up in the tin).

Nearly every visit, I come across new “green” claims that, to me, just don’t stack up. Products labelled “GM-Free” when to the best of my knowledge, there is no genetically modified variety so it is not a true point of distinction. Or plastics labelled as “biodegradable” because they will disintegrate if left out in the sun – so what happens to the residue? Did your supplier tell you about that?

The Commerce Commission, the enforcers of the Fair Trading Act 1986, are onto it of course, because misleading environmental claims breach that Act. I doubt there is any unfair claim more likely to cause a competitor to rush to the Commission’s complaints line than a misleading green claim. The Commerce Commission has some useful information on its website about environmental claims. Have a look at its Guidelines for Green Marketing, online here. Also, do not even think about making carbon claims until you’ve read the Commission’s Guidelines for Carbon Claims.

Unfair environmental advertising is known as “greenwashing”.The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “greenwashing” as “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally-responsible public image.”

The word “disinformation” does indicate intention to mislead the public. However, I suspect that the majority of greenwashing is unintentional and relates to a perception by traders that by making a single and deliberate choice that they are told is “environmentally sensitive” they have improved the overall environmental friendliness of their goods or services, when in fact other factors make the product more environmentally unfriendly.

Take, for example, the current debate on the overall advantages of electric cars, long touted as the solution to the diminishing, non-renewable oil reserves. Imagine all the workers in New Zealand driving home in the evening and plugging in their cars, just as domestic electricity consumption is at its highest, with heaters being turned on in cold houses and dinners being cooked... requiring reserve generation from fossil fuel based at Huntly power station. It is just not that simple.

If you are tempted to be seen to be doing your bit by being environmentally responsible, be careful. So your product is recyclable. Is the whole product recyclable in New Zealand? If it is not, is there a facility for stockpiling and sending overseas for recycling? Is it in fact recycled? Is the recycling process itself environmentally sensitive?

The message here is not “no green marketing”. It is all about accuracy. So your hybrid car saves fossil fuel. Great – something to crow about. But whether in total it is green will depend on a whole lot of other factors throughout the life of the car. Check the whole story before you make any green claims.

Rae Nield is a solicitor specialising in marketing law. This article is intended for general information, and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice relating to your own specific legal problems. Rae Nield can be contacted at raenield@marketinglaw.co.nz


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