Clearing the air on environmental claims: What to look for and what to avoid

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According to a consumer survey undertaken by YouGov in the US and Europe, 
two out of three consumers are more positive about brands that take concrete steps to reduce their products’ carbon emissions. At the same time, two-thirds think product footprint labelling is a good idea. 

But what exactly should consumers be looking for? 

Understanding environmental terms and claims 

As a starting point, it’s helpful to have clarity on environmental terms used in claims, which can often be confusing. Here are some key terms to know. 
  • Greenhouse gas emissions – Gases in our atmosphere that trap heat. CO2 is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. 
  • Carbon footprint – Measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, service or product. 
  • Carbon footprint label – An on-pack label on a product demonstrating the brand is working to measure and/or reduce emissions of the given product. 
  • Carbon neutrality – Carbon neutrality is defined by an internationally recognised standard (PAS 2060) which requires companies to reduce their emissions; any remaining emissions are compensated through offsets.
  • Carbon offsetting – A carbon offset allows organisations to compensate for emissions they could not reduce by funding a project with an equivalent carbon saving elsewhere. 

What to look for and what claims to believe 

When shopping, the first thing to look for is a symbol, trust or quality mark awarded by an independent third party. Carbon footprint labels on a product or its packaging show when a brand is working to measure and reduce its carbon emissions.The more we understand a product’s carbon footprint, the better choices we can make. The Carbon Trust label, for example, shows consumers if a product’s carbon footprint is reducing year-on-year, is carbon neutral or lower than other market-dominant products.  It also assures a third party has verified that the product’s carbon footprint is measured to internationally recognised standards.To identify genuine environmental claims, look for specific, factual information backed by credible, evidence-based data sources. Claims should be easy to understand, providing access to further information via weblinks or QR codes.  

Be wary of brands that claim to be ‘the first’ or saving the planet, as every product and service has an environmental impact across its lifecycle. Instead, look for brands that are transparent, who share their progress on what they have achieved and what they are still working on.  

What to avoid  

As consumers are seeking more sustainable products, companies are incentivised to make their products as attractive as possible through their environmental claims.  This has given rise to greenwashing where companies claim they are doing more for the environment than they are. Signs of greenwashing include:  
  • Vague and unclear language.
  • Statements that give the impression a product has no negative impact at all. 
  • Lack of accessible, adequate explanations or evidence.
  • Eco logos and labels that are not associated with third-party assurance to international standards.
  • Omitting information to appear more eco-friendly.
As a consumer, if you have any concerns or doubts about a green claim, err on the side of caution.  We can’t solve the climate crisis alone. But if we start to become more climate conscious during our everyday shopping, we can reduce our footprint – one foot at a time.
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Written with input from colleagues Madeleine Bertie & Tirza Kreuwel.