Green efforts too often fall foul of scepticism

By Laura Crowley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Scientific method, Balance sheet

Companies with good green intentions face tough challenges in
substantiating their advertising claims, leading to accusations of
'green washing', says an industry expert.

Tom Scourfield, a lawyer with CMS Cameron McKenna specialising in the food and drink industry, said: "Green advertising has been one of the biggest trends in the sector in recent times. But it is not without its pitfalls." ​Public awareness is increasing on the damaging effect our lifestyles have on climate change, and food manufacturers are adapting in line with this, eager to demonstrate the steps they are taking to protect the environment. But as scientific debate continues on the precise impact certain processes have on the environment, it is difficult to substantiate claims on the amount a company is reducing its carbon footprint, said Scourfield. Companies have to be careful of over exaggerated advertising and misleading language, which can lead to accusations of green washing, where consumers are misled on environmental practices or the effect is misstated. In a survey of 6,000 adults conducted by Burst Media this month, more than a third (32 per cent) of consumers said they frequently recall green messaging, but one in five (22.7 per cent) said they rarely or never believe green claims made in advertisements and two thirds (65.3 per cent) said they only sometimes believe them. "Green washing is an easy allegation for sceptics to make but it is very difficult to make proper advertising claims stand up to scrutiny,"​ said Scourfield. Problems with substantiating claims ​Scourfield told "A lot of companies are getting a bad press on green issues. A minority perhaps aren't taking the steps that they should. But huge numbers are, and they face difficulties in explaining that to the consumer in an easily understandable way without affecting their bottom line or the price of their product. "They then have to make advertising claims they can substantiate in a way regulators will accept or the consumer will not misunderstand." ​ Because the concentration on green issues is relatively new, people are still uncertain on the definition of some environmental terms, according to Scourfield. As a result, companies simplify their claims to keep them easy for consumers to understand, but then this leads to generalised statements that cannot be substantiated. Scourfield said: "There are some claims you should not make, such as environmentally friendly and zero effect, as all process in food production have some sort of impact. But by simplification, this is inevitable. "Furthermore, substantiation is difficult because the scientific community is divided and cannot provide a cause and effect. When the scientific community agrees more, some of the controversy will go away." ​To avoid falling foul to green sceptics while meeting the standards set by regulatory bodies, companies must ensure advertising remains truthful and accurate. Scourfield said manufacturers must be aware of the following points:

  • The use of language -words should be carefully chosen

  • Be clear with the terms used in the advertising claims

  • Do not exaggerate or mislead consumers on environmental performance

  • Do not suggest endorsement by a scientific of consumer body without specific permission

  • Avoid suggesting a claim is a universal truth

Importance of green advertising ​Scourfield said: "Increasing pressure from the government and regulators, from shareholders and from consumers mean manufacturers are being squeezed from every angle to demonstrate a green outlook. "Also, businesses often find it is necessary to do something themselves otherwise regulators will do something." ​ Manufacturers big and small have been responding to demands for demonstrating a greener outlook. ​In 2002, Mintel's global database recorded only five product launches across all sectors of industry that were aimed at providing a greener approach. In 2007, there were 328 new products, representing a 200 per cent increase since 2006.​ Companies such as Tesco, Walkers and Innocent have all shown substantial measures to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, last year they started tracking the CO2 outputs involved in getting to the shelves private label products as part of a draft standard developed by the Carbon Trust.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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