With marketing teams facing restrictions on the environmental claims they can make we should brace ourselves for a rise in misleading media communications, says David Burrows.
Greenwashing is “rampant” in the food sector, according to an analysis published by the Changing Markets Foundation in March. The NGO pointed the finger at a number of grocery and foodservice brands for the “misleading” claims they are making in marketing materials and adverts. “What we need now is much more active enforcement and hefty penalties on companies that continue to greenwash,” says campaigns director Nusa Urbancic. These are coming via the digital markets, competition and consumer bill which should give the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) more powers to enforce its green claims code.
But as regulators rein in marketers, could press releases offer a new gateway for companies to greenwash?
I’ve begun to see snippets from media materials appearing on social media, outing potential greenwashing. One involved a claim to deliver “the world’s most accurate carbon emissions calculations” which had the tech company involved scrabbling to defend itself (it wasn’t pretty).
I flagged this as an issue two years ago, when grocery chains were claiming credit for switching out plastic straws when in fact their hands were being forced by regulations.
More recently I exchanged emails with a major packaging manufacturer that was talking up its “paper-based packaging” which is “delivering [a] more sustainable solution” for chocolate bars in Australia. The press release highlights the “360 tonnes of plastic saved” from the new format but fails to flag the fact that the packaging has a “very thin plastic barrier”. I had to ask for this information, as did Packaging News.
The company claims the packaging is recyclable at the kerbside but that’s not the point: the green claims code here in the UK states that companies must “not omit or hide important information” and that “claims must not prevent someone from making an informed choice because of the information they leave out”.
Press releases need to be short, or journalists won’t read them. But press officers appear to have taken that as a green light to omit vital information – and to my mind greenwash. Statements that flood my inbox with details of net-zero commitments rarely include figures for a company’s total emissions. And major brands I have asked for the information wouldn’t tell me.
That regulators in the UK, the EU (which is considering proposals for a new green claims code) and the US are trying to get to grips with greenwashing is good news. But we should be wary that some companies will want to continue to mislead – to portray a prettier picture to a public that is increasingly interested in not only buying sustainable foods but paying a premium for them. The press release, which isn’t policed as far as I’m aware, is the perfect format for that.
I expect a bump in claims being made in media releases as new laws restrict claims on packs and in adverts. Journalists will need to stay alert. Trust in environmental claims is being eroded by greenwashing so don’t be surprised if I’m sceptical when you next ping me a press release that makes dubious statements around the sustainability of your products or services.