Almost half of all environmental claims made by online traders are exaggerated, false or deceptive, according to a screening carried out by the European Commission in partnership with national consumer authorities.
The process is known as greenwashing, where a company makes claims of the environmental properties of its products which are couched in such vague terms as to be meaningless. When looked at more closely, as the project did, a huge number turn out to be unsubstantiated or even plain false.
When a false claim is uncovered, it is likely to be in breach of the EU’s rules on unfair commercial practices.
The project dug down into 344 claims gathered from the internet, and found that in more than half of all cases, the trader had not provided enough information for the client to be able to judge the accuracy of the claims being made.
In 59% of cases the trader had offered background evidence which was supposed to support their claims, but the evidence was not readily available – published in an obscure academic journal not readily available to the public, for example.
In 37% of cases, on the other hand, the trader was content to use such vague terms as ‘conscious’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ intended to give the impression the product was safer than it actually was.
“In their overall assessments, taking various factors into account, in 42% of cases authorities had reason to believe that the claim may be false or deceptive and could therefore potentially amount to an unfair commercial practice under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD),” the Commission reports.
“More and more people want to live a green life, and I applaud companies that strive to produce eco-friendly products or services,” said former Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders, now European commissioner for justice.
“However, there are also unscrupulous traders out there, who pull the wool over consumers’ eyes with vague, false or exaggerated claims. The Commission is fully committed to empowering consumers in the green transition and fighting greenwashing. This is one of the main priorities of the New Consumer Agenda adopted last autumn.”
The national authorities who took part in the online sweep will now contact the traders active in their area to explain the problems and ensure they are followed up.