Printed on “recycled paper containing 80% post-consumer waste and 20% totally chlorine free virgin pulp”, concise and helpful guidance on ‘how to make a good environmental claim’ is now available from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Topic: Environmental claims
Who: The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ("Defra")
When: December 2003
Defra published "Green claims – practical guidance". This spells out the dos and don’ts for product labelling and encourages firms to give shoppers better information about the environmental performance of their products.
Available on the Defra website and printed in hard copy form on recycled paper containing "80% post-consumer waste and 20% totally chlorine free virgin pulp" the Guidance is designed to operate alongside the UK green claims code the British CAP Code of advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing and the European Commission guidelines for making and assessing environmental claims and to provide interpretative guidance on how these can be applied.
Compliance with the Guidance is not a legal obligation, but the document does point out that there are legal pitfalls for the unwary in this area, such as the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988.
The scheme of the Guidance is that it applies to all those who are voluntarily deciding to make environmental claims in their product labelling. It includes a helpful section which focuses on existing environmental labelling and declaration schemes.
Existing environmental claim schemes
It explains in each case the circumstances in which advantage can be taken of these schemes. For instance, it mentions that the massively under-used "EU eco label" scheme is available for a total of 21 different product groups. To qualify for the logo, those products must be independently assessed to have met strict environmental criteria covering all aspects of the product's life cycle.
Also, there is of course the famous "Mobius loop" consisting of the three interconnecting arrows forming a triangle. The paper reminds us here that it should only be used without any additional information if the entire product including all its packaging is 100% recyclable. If only a percentage of the content is recyclable, then this percentage should appear inside the triangle.
As regards the remainder of the Guidance, this is helpfully set out in a set format so that there are three parts for each section. Part 1 asks "What is the issue?". Part 2 asks "How can this be addressed?" and part 3 sets out examples of bad claims and how they can be made good.
Three basic elements of compliance
Before moving into this format, a general "basic requirements" section reminds us that there are three elements to take into account when considering making self declared environmental claims. These elements could also apply to a wide range of other advertising and labelling compliance areas. They are content, presentation and accuracy.
In relation to accuracy and truthful claims generally, the Guidance reminds us that environmental claims may be literally true, but might still be capable of being widely misunderstood. A given example is "lead-free" or "contains no added lead" where this is likely to give the impression that this is a recent change to the product's formulation, or that other competing products do in fact contain lead. If neither is the case, then such claims should not be made.
Relevant claims only
Another recommendation by the Guidance is that claims must be relevant to the product in question. The claim should be relevant for example, to the place where the corresponding environmental impact occurs. It should also indicate whether the claim refers to the whole product or just part of it or just the packaging. Claims should not be made that imply that the product is exceptional when in fact all products in the market place share the same characteristic. One exception to this might be where there are significant levels of consumer concern and there is no realisation amongst consumers that there is a legal requirement that all products share the same characteristics. In this scenario, the claim should be qualified for example by the statement "in line with similar products", or "as required by law..".
The example section here focuses on stock claims such as "this product is recyclable". When using claims like this, care should be taken to ensure that there is evidence that suitable recycling infrastructure exists to maximise the possibility that the product sold may in fact end up being recycled. Otherwise, the claim will not be supportable.
Another example mentions another stock claim "CFC-free", used for aerosols. This is misleading as it implies that the product is exceptional whereas in fact the absence of CFCs in aerosols is a legal requirement in the UK. An acceptable alternative might be "aerosols do not contain CFCs.
Another section focuses on how to ensure that claims are specific and unambiguous. This advises firmly against the use of general, vague claims such as "environmentally friendly", "green", "nature's friend", "safe for the environment", "eco-friendly", or "made with care for the environment".
Also unacceptable would be a claim such as "this product now uses even less energy than our previous version". Better would be, providing this were true, "This product now uses 20% less electricity in normal use than our previous model".
Small print on the back
When it comes to clear presentation of environmental claims, the Guidance advises against burying critical information in the small print or on the back of a pack.
An example of this might be the claim "Heat reduced" on the front of a pack with further information on the back. The problem here is that the critical information as to the actual level of improvement or actual heat content is not easily visible when selecting which item to purchase. To resolve this, a company wording along the lines of "heat reduced, contains 20% less than our previous version (date)" on the front of the pack would be preferable.
Another example of unclear presentation would be "one tree planted for every tree cut down" on paper products. This implies that the product has significant environmental benefits, whereas in fact the vast majority of paper and cardboard will come from forests that are replanted on a commercial basis.
Regarding accuracy of claims, the Guidance gives helpful hints as to how to ensure that the manufacturer will be well placed if claims on labelling are challenged. This verifying information should be available to all of those who request it so should not be reliant upon access to confidential business information. If test methods are going to be deployed then the Guidance helpfully sets out various alternatives that are available and are recognised within the relevant industry. If such tests are conducted, then the Guidance goes into some detail on the categories of documentation relating to those tests that should be retained in order to deal with queries or challenges.
Why this matters:
As the Guidance is specifically targeted at product labelling, compliance with it in the context of labels will not help comply with the CAP Code of advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing. This is because the CAP Code does not apply to labelling. However, to the extent that claims of the kind covered by the Guidance are included in advertising as well as labelling, spending the 15 minutes it takes to read this concise and well set out 20 page document will benefit significantly all manufacturers and advertisers contemplating making "environmental" claims.