What is the Green Claims Code, and where did it come from?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) introduced the Green Claims Code in September 2021, as a response to growing challenges from customers around misleading environmental claims. While the Code is not technically legal advice, it is designed to “help businesses understand and comply with their existing obligations under consumer protection law when making environmental claims”.
So, what is a green claim?
Let’s start with the basics, a green claim is “one which suggests that a product, service, process, brand or business is better for the environment”. In the absence of more strict guidance on advertising green claims, businesses are at risk of misleading their consumers as to the sustainability of their products.
According to The Code, your green claims should:
- Be truthful and accurate
- Be clear and unambiguous
- Not omit important information
- Only make fair and meaningful comparisons
- Consider the full life cycle of the product
- Be substantiated
At a first glance, these might seem a little obscure. So let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
1. Green claims must be truthful and accurate
The Green Claims Code suggests businesses ask themselves the following questions to ensure they are making true and accurate green claims:
- Is the claim true?
- Does my product live up to the claims I am making?
- Is the claim only true and accurate under certain conditions or with caveats, and are these clear?
- Am I claiming environmental benefits that are required by law or that consumers would expect anyway?
- Am I telling the whole story, or does the claim only relate to one part of my product or business?
- Does my claim give an overall impression that the environmental benefits are greater (or the harms more limited) than is really the case?
Where claims overstate the positive environmental impact of a product, they are more likely to be misleading. For example, broader or more general terms like “green”, “sustainable”, or “eco-friendly” all suggest that the product as a whole has a positive (or at least no) environmental impact. Avoiding descriptors which imply your product is “good for the environment” - unless this is explicitly proven true - will help with compliance here.
But it’s not just about language, don’t forget your imagery and visuals are also taken into account. The Green Claims Code uses the example of a yoghurt pot covered in a large green leaf, which states “reduced plastic packaging”. The Code holds that both elements give the impression that the product is better for the environment than it really is - given there was little reduction in overall impact from the reduced plastic packaging.
So, what can you say instead (in the context of carbon)?
Our product is…
- …Carbon or climate conscious
- …Climate smart
- …Low or very low carbon
- …Lower carbon
- …Carbon cutting
2. Green claims must be clear and unambiguous
The Green Claims Code suggests businesses ask themselves the following questions to ensure they are making clear and unambiguous green claims:
- Is the meaning of the terms used clear to consumers?
- If vague or general terms have been used, have these been explained?
- Does the claim relate to the whole product, or part of it?
- Is the information you are providing to consumers useful or confusing?
Similar to the first principle, the Code holds that the meaning consumers are likely to derive from a green claim must be consistent with a product’s actual environmental impact.
In short, however, you present your advertising or messaging has to align to the actual truth of the product. No fluff or filler.
For example, when applying general terms like “recyclable” or “biodegradable”, claims must be clear about which part of the product they refer to and when they apply. The Code uses the example of a product labelled as ‘recyclable’ without any further explanation, meaning consumers are uncertain whether the whole product can be recycled, or just the packaging. This also applies to different components of the packaging, such as inner and outer materials.
3. Green claims must not omit important information
Don’t cherry pick. Your business should ask itself the following questions to ensure claims do not omit important information:
- What environmental impacts does my product have?
- What do consumers need to know to make informed choices about my product?
- Do I need to caveat any claims that I am making, or explain them in more detail?
- Where I do not plan to include information in a claim, why not?
- Is there anything I need to tell consumers so they can make informed choices, but that I genuinely cannot fit into my claim?
A product’s environmental impact is influenced by a range of different factors - including sourcing, processing, packaging, transport, consumption and disposal, among others. As such, businesses must not neglect to inform consumers about important aspects of a product’s environmental credentials, by focusing on one over another. If your brand wants to understand this is in more detail, Foodsteps can help you look into the environmental impact of your food product.
Cherry-picking positive environmental aspects is likely to make consumers think a product as a whole is greener than it really is. Businesses should consider the full life cycle of a product, even where the claim only relates to one aspect. For example, highlighting a brand new, low carbon processing plant, but neglecting to mention the subsequent rise in transport emissions is likely to be misleading to consumers - especially where transport represents a more significant proportion of the overall impact.
Businesses may be forced to omit information where it simply does not fit on the packaging. In this instance, the Green Claims Code recommends using a URL or QR code, linking consumers to a separate webpage where they can find much more detail on a product’s environmental credentials. In fact, Foodsteps already advocates this - our QR code carbon labels and accompanying Foodstory webpage, ensuring consumers have access to information beyond the number on the label.
4. Green claims must only make fair and meaningful comparisons
The Green Claims Code suggests businesses ask themselves the following questions to ensure their green claims make fair + meaningful comparisons:
- Is the claim comparing like with like?
- Is the likelike-for-likefor like comparison a fair and representative one?
- Is the basis of the comparison fair and clear?
Comparative claims should help consumers make informed choices about competing products, or different versions of the same product. It should not be implied that one product is “better” for the environment than another, if it is not, or cannot be verified.
Comparative claims should compare like with like:
- The products in question should be intended for the same purpose
- It should be clear what is being compared
- The comparison should be made between verifiable and representative features of the respective products
- The basis for comparison should be clear, and enable consumers to make an informed decision
- Assessments must be carried out using the same methods
- Assessments must be up-to-date and relevant
5. Green claims must consider the full life cycle of the product
The Green Claims Code suggests businesses ask themselves the following questions to ensure their green claims consider the full life cycle of the product:
- Does the claim reflect the whole product life cycle?
- By making a claim about one element of the product’s life cycle, does the claim mislead the consumer about other aspects?
As we mentioned above, information regarding the full life cycle of a product does not need to be included in environmental claims. However, so as not to mislead, businesses should focus on aspects of a product that are most significant in terms of overall impact - i.e. that make up the largest proportion of a product’s emissions. Green claims should also acknowledge where exclusions in the life cycle assessment have been made.
The Code uses the example of a product which claims to have a “33% lower carbon impact”, despite excluding transportation from the assessment. Given the largest proportion of this product’s impact actually comes from transport, the overall carbon reduction is in fact much smaller, meaning the claim is misleading.
6. Green claims must be substantiated
In order for environmental claims to be verified as “truthful” and “accurate”, businesses must provide supporting evidence. This is where Foodsteps comes in - not only do we ensure that the carbon footprint data used by our clients is robust and up-to-date, but our methodology is also made publicly accessible through the Foodstory webpage. Conducting independent assessments of a product’s environmental impact using Foodsteps is far easier to substantiate than relying on generic claims based on academic opinion (see Tesco example).
Have any brands broken the code?
Only a few food and drink brands have been found guilty of greenwashing by the ASA. The most severe action resulting from this ruling is a ban on running the ad in question in its current form.
- “I care about climate change and I love my food. So new Quorn Thai Wondergrains is a step in the right direction because it helps us reduce our carbon footprint and that’s got to be good.”
- Upheld - Basis for reduction is unclear. The Carbon Trust certification does not clarify what the claimed carbon reduction is being measured against, especially as this is a new product.
Foodsteps’ Key Takeaways
- Use external resources to help bolster your claims, like a QR code or a landing page.
- Always make your claims in the context of a product’s overall impact (not just the good bits).
- Be as specific as possible, no one wants to leave their customers in the dark.
- Avoid using fluffy terminology like ‘climate friendly’ - especially if that’s untrue.
- When making comparisons, try not to generalise.
This may sound like a chunk of work, but there are services out there which can help you reach your sustainable goals and communicate them effectively. Foodsteps already takes out a lot of the groundwork. Our carbon footprint data is methodologically robust, and our services can help you and your customers make sustainable food decisions.
Ready to start your sustainable food journey? Foodsteps can help your sustainable food claims be Green Claims Code compliant from the start, get started and try for free.