Greenwashing “rampant” in food and drink sector

McDonald’s and Burger King are among dozens of food companies that have been accused of greenwashing in a new study by the Changing Markets Foundation.

The NGO assessed dozens of claims made by food and drink companies against the green claims code – which was published in 2021 by the Competition and Markets Authority to help companies avoid making misleading environmental claims.

Its experts looked at both obvious green claims such as ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘sustainable’, as well as imagery and branding that could present a misleading impression of the types of farming methods used. 

In all there were 54 cases of greenwashing in the past 12 months, over 80% of which related to climate impacts. 

The research comes in the same week that the European Commission published the draft of its green claims directive, which is designed to offer “common criteria” for businesses looking to make environmental claims. A review in 2020 found more than half the claims were vague, misleading or unfounded, and 40% were unsubstantiated. 

The EU didn’t name and shame but campaign groups are increasingly keen to do so.

Changing Markets’ report criticises a host of major food and drink brands. Aldi and Lidl were panned for their carbon neutral ranges which rely on offsetting; so too was Nestlé’s KitKat brand.

Unilever’s Magnum ice-cream, meanwhile, claims to be ‘True Pleasure for the Future’ with images promoting sustainability on its packaging, but this also relies on offsets and the use of renewable electricity at some sites, the NGO reported. 

Saputo’s Cathedral City cheese is marketed with images of cows grazing green pastures, yet “its cattle are at least partly fed on soya that has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon”, the report noted. 

The foundation is particularly concerned with “rampant” greenwashing in the meat and dairy sectors, both because of the considerable environmental footprint of these products but also how easily consumers appear to be swayed by sustainability claims for these products.

A YouGov poll commissioned by Changing Markets shows that 31% of UK consumers are more likely to buy meat and dairy labelled ‘low methane’, while 22% claim that they are willing to pay slightly ‘more’ or ‘much more’ for it.

Greenwashing provides a “veneer of sustainability for an industry that is responsible for a third of global methane emissions and is the main driver of deforestation” explained campaigns director Nusa Urbancic. 

Foodservice brands were also criticised and are among the case studies that have been added to a website dedicated to greenwashing.

Burger King advertised a reduced methane Whooper, which it claimed – on the basis of an unfinished study – that feeding lemongrass to cows would reduce methane emissions by 30%. Changing Markets pointed to research suggesting that the real figure is closer to 3%. The ad was later removed following a backlash from farmers and scientists. 

McDonald’s is criticised for claims made in its ‘Plan for Change’, which “appears to rely heavily on offsetting”, and provides little detail on the actual emissions reductions the chain is working on with its farmers.

Urbancic called on the government to “ensure the industry sets binding targets for emissions reductions”. Harsher penalties for greenwashers are “long overdue”, she added. “While the CMA guidance on green claims is a step in the right direction, they should go further by banning the most misleading claims, such as carbon neutral labels.” 

The digital markets, competition and consumer bill, introduced in spring

2023, will give the CMA powers to impose penalties on companies for misleading green claims.

Regulators in the EU and the US are also policing green claims more closely. Recent examples include net-zero marketing run by Arla and JBS.

“Marketing teams are going to have to work much more closely with quality, R&D and regulatory teams going forward,” said Dominic Watkins from law firm DWF.

The draft EU green claims directive published this week proposes that members states introduce penalties for greenwashing that are “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”.

The measures also have implications for ecolabelling schemes as well as claims relating to carbon neutrality and recycled plastic content.

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