Comment: Addicted to greenwash

The coffee sector is making more environmental claims than ever but brands need to tread very carefully, says David Burrows. 

Why do food and drink brands greenwash? It is a question I’ve been mulling over recently after being invited on the Adventures in Coffee podcast to discuss this very hot topic. 

Coffee as a sector is addicted to environmental and ethical claims – and the lack of one can stand out. I found shops pushing plant-based milks to ‘save the planet’, roasters using packaging to ‘green’ their beans, and global brands claiming carbon neutrality. It was a struggle to sort the green from the guff.

That companies are keen to engage customers on issues of sustainability is positive. Most recent surveys show we are keener than ever to buy into sustainable brands – or what we perceive to be sustainable brands. Indeed, as issues such as climate change and plastic pollution become firmly established as top consumer concerns, the temptation to shout about something sustainable becomes harder to resist. 

Companies have to compete and increasingly they are competing on everything from carbon to compostable packaging. Some will inevitably look for shortcuts. While the responsible businesses take the time, patience and humility to deliver a sustainable product, others may well just “bluff it”, as one independent coffee shop told me recently, popping an ambiguous green claim on the front of their products and winding up with a sale anyway.

An example I used in the podcast was the term ‘100% recyclable’, which offers a nice green halo to both the packaging and the product (consumers take more cues about a company’s sustainability initiatives from its packaging than anything else, according to the Sustainable Restaurant Association). But it means nothing. Recyclable where and how?

Such claims can be the result of laziness, ignorance or an overly zealous marketing team. Whichever way you look at it, it’s incredibly frustrating for those trying to do their homework so they can make truly sustainable decisions rather than score quick marketing points.

On another bag of coffee beans I bought were the words: not yet recycled. My hunch is that behind such honesty is a brand that is doing its homework.

It’s not just packaging problems that brands are trying to unpick. They’re also confronted with pressure to work on climate change. 

Net-zero is fast-becoming a necessity for brands large and small, which is leading to more greenwash. In the podcast we honed in on offsetting because coffee brands seem to have a penchant for carbon neutral claims. Some are even being marketed as ‘carbon negative’, with one offsetting “twice” in order to have “a positive, not a neutral impact on the environment”. 

I’m expecting these climate claims to become evermore elaborate as brands compete in this green space. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has urged the government to start clearing this up, and has pushed for legal definitions of terms like recyclable, carbon neutral and net-zero. That would also help the regulator enforce its green claims code. 

Thin green line

The Advertising Standards Authority also polices environmental claims. It is undertaking research into consumer perceptions of some the terms above and is about to launch enquiries into claims made specifically about waste and sustainable food. 

The approach being taken to environmental claims is not quite ‘guilty until proven innocent’ but brands will have to defend their ads in considerable detail. Miles Lockwood, director of complaints and investigations, warned those presenting a marketing message that “you’d better have the evidence, you’d better be clear, you better be legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

He detailed the recent case of Oatly, which the ASA slapped down for running misleading adverts about the impact and emissions of dairy-free versus dairy milk. The alternative milk maker presented a bucket load of information, including life cycle assessments, but still proved a “classic example of over claiming”, said Lockwood. “Just because your product is probably better for the environment […] doesn’t let you off the hook for being accurate and being precise,” he explained.

Regulators will need to catch a few more big fish before others are deterred. But make no mistake: the net is (finally) tightening around greenwashers and that is great news for responsible businesses and consumers alike. 

David Burrows is associate editor at Footprint. The Adventures in Coffee podcast, produced by Caffeine magazine, is available here.

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