Stop the greenwash

Kate Hinton and Caroline Randal, heads of green practice at the PR Network, examine the guidance and standards provided to buisness to inform consumers.

With business and consumers driving the market for sustainable goods and services in the UK – is government creating the right market conditions to stop the “green wash”?

There has been an incremental rise in the growth of environment reports over the past 10 years, with the most significant growth during 2009-10 of 20% according to a survey conducted by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA).

And, according to the Co-operative bank, British consumers spend billions of pounds on environmentally green goods each year – increasing five-fold from £1.4bn in 1999 to £7bn in 2009.

This has been matched with an increasing rise in environmental claims and green product labelling which has led the ASA to record a four-fold increase in complaints.

From 117 complaints for 83 adverts in 2006 to 561 for 410 adverts in 2007, when complaints about green claims became one of the two biggest issues for consumers, alongside violence.

Direction on this subject has been issued by Defra, who recently published a green claims code of practice and from this month the ASA is now regulating online claims.

Will these together be enough to provide businesses and consumers with the guidance and standards that are needed to ensure there is an even playing field and enough information for consumers to be able to differentiate between green product options?

Defra’s green claims code of practice provides some clear guidance on how to build consumer confidence through three initial key steps: ensuring the product reflects a genuine benefit to the environment; clear and accurate presentation; and, perhaps most importantly of all, proving those claims.

In a world where the communications challenge is to provide clear and creative marketing that allows products to compete, this is now set against an increasingly complex backdrop of different types of green claims from cutting carbon by 10% to energy efficient labels for fridges.

How are consumers able to make sense of this increasingly complex information? Defra’s guidance focuses mainly on examples of good practice, but little on the pitfalls that have emerged through bad practice.

Although Defra’s code of practice has been reasonably well reported in the environmental press, it’s interesting that it has received limited coverage in the trade communications media, and it is this audience that Defra should be engaging with to ensure that its code of practice is applied.

Perhaps the government’s review of the role of mandatory ghg reporting, which has been much called for by businesses – over 80% of businesses think GHG reporting should become mandatory according to research published by IEMA – will ensure that businesses and consumers have the clear framework that is needed to create a trusted and sustainable future for the growth of green products and services.

Only time will tell, whether there have been improvements in the way in which companies make their green claims as a result of this new guidance.

However, an increasingly competitive and growing market will mean that businesses competing in this field will need to work harder to get their message out. And it is those businesses that build a reputation on providing the clearest, most transparent and robust information who will ultimately become the market leaders.

Kate Hinton and Caroline Randle, who lead on green practice at the PR Network, the UK’s leading virtual communications agency.

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