Who: The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC)
Where: European Union (EU)
When: 9 March 2023
Law stated as at: 9 March 2023
BEUC has released a report calling on the European Commission to ban food companies from making carbon neutral claims. In the report, the BEUC welcomes the proposals set out by the European Commission in March 2022, which are aimed at clamping down on greenwashing, but highlights certain areas where the Commission could and should go further and highlights its reasoning for this view.
One of the key pillars of the reasoning is the BEUC’s finding that food companies are frequently making carbon neutral claims on their products which BEUC take the view are scientifically inaccurate and given the impression that the products do not use carbon in their production. In reality, not using carbon at all to make food is impossible because the production of food and drink will always result in the emission of carbon and as such each product will have an impact on carbon emissions. As a result, the BEUC argues that consumers fundamentally misunderstand these claims.
Another key area of concern for the BEUC is food and drink brands’ heavy reliance on carbon offsetting as a basis to underpin its carbon neutral claims. Carbon offsetting is a mechanism by which businesses purchase carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions in producing/transporting a product instead of reducing their actual emissions. For example, the money gained from selling carbon credits could then be used in carbon reducing schemes such as carbon farming programmes and forestry projects. The BEUC found that these schemes have no guarantee of success and also take many years to see a substantial environmental impact.
The BEUC also highlights its concerns around consumers general lack of understanding on what carbon offsetting means and their disappointment with products which rely on carbon offsetting. For example it cites a study by the UK Advertising Standards Authority, which showed that consumers felt misled where the product they purchased which bore an environmental claim actually relied on offsetting rather than carbon reduction. The BEUC also quotes the Federation of German Consumer Organisations, which found that explanatory statements in the EU on carbon offsetting claims do little to change consumers’ perception of the product’s environmental status.
In addition, the BEUC is highly critical of the speed at which national authorities are dealing with complaints about misleading carbon neutral claims, such that the damage is already done by the time the complaint has come to light.
Overall, the BEUC considers that carbon neutral claims are extremely misleading for consumers. As a result, the BEUC considers that the overall impact is that consumers are misled in relation to the environmental benefit of a product and that the carbon neutral claims which are being made mean that consumers don’t undertake alternative, and more environmentally beneficial, dietary changes.
The BEUC therefore recommends carbon neutral claims (and their derivatives), including those on food products, should be expressly banned.
Why this matters:
The BEUC’s report potentially puts further pressure on the EU to present a firm approach in relation to carbon neutral claims. It is extremely timely, being published a few weeks before the European Parliament and Commission was due to focus on greenwashing. This update also comes at a time when the UK Competition and Markets Authority has announced that its review into greenwashing will continue with a review of the food and drink sector. Businesses operating in the food and drink sector in the EU and UK should therefore consider any carbon neutral claims which they are currently making and the basis on which they are being made (offsetting or carbon reduction).
For more on the wider implications for the EU’s greenwashing directive please see our Insight.