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Shoppers need clear labels to put a stop to ‘greenwash’ home

  • The Guardian, Monday 23 March 2009

Tough standards on labelling should be enforced by the government to clamp down on “greenwash”, in which companies exaggerate the environmental credentials of their products, a Commons committee recommends today.

A universal scheme, with independent verification, should be introduced because the “proliferation of labels” was confusing consumers, according to MPs on the Commons environmental audit committee.

The problem of greenwash has been highlighted in recent years after the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) censured a series of high profile companies for making misleading claims about the environmental impact of their products.

A complaint against Shell, which ran a newspaper advert depicting its refinery chimneys emitting flowers, was upheld by the advertising watchdog. Friends of the Earth complained about the advert, which ran with the slogan: “Don’t throw anything anyway. There is no away.”

MPs on the committee call for a series of changes to improve environmental labelling. These include:

• Enforcing a new labelling scheme by law that would include independent monitoring.

• Giving greater powers to trading standards officers and the ASA to act when companies make “inaccurate and misleading” claims.

• Forcing car dealers to display EU information on vehicle performance.

Colin Challen, the Labour chairman of the environmental information sub-committee, said: “The government has to act to deal with the problem of greenwash. Clear labels are needed to help consumers make informed choices but for consumers to have confidence in them, environmental labels must be backed up by independent monitoring that is fully verified.”

The new universal system must be flexible. Challen said: “The environmental choices a consumer makes buying shampoo are different to those they make when buying a car. Whatever we are buying, more needs to be done to make clear the environmental choices we each make whenever we choose one product over another.

“An effective environmental labelling regime will also generate the kind of market signal needed to trigger a transformation in business activities all the way down the supply chain of a particular product. This kind of action is vital if we are going to decarbonise the UK economy.”

The ASA annual report last year said claims that products and services were carbon neutral, zero or negative were often open to challenge, as were statements claiming products to be 100% recycled or “wholly sustainable”.

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