Eco-friendly shopping bags, dishwashers, batteries, cutlery, bottles.
The list of ‘green’ products –those that have been manufactured responsibly with the planet in mind — is getting longer.
A research by Canada-based marketing company TerraChoice found that in the last 5-7 years, the market for eco-friendly products in India has recorded a 73 per cent growth.
With consciousness rising, consumers are actively choosing such products.
According to a June 2022 report by Bain and Co, 20 per cent of consumers in India are environmentally and socially conscious.
Now the question is: What’s to prove that the product branded as eco-friendly is truly “green” — and not ‘greenwashed’?
Greenwashing is making misleading or false environment-friendly claims about a product.
Companies generally rely on marketing and advertising for greenwashing, boasting claims like recycled packaging, biodegradable bags, and sustainable clothing.
Such is the scale of the problem that at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, ‘We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.’
Several multinational corporations, including Volkswagen, oil giants like Shell and BP, Nestle, fashion brand H&M, and Coca Cola have been accused of greenwashing.
Globally, the scale of greenwashing is estimated to be $22 trillion. It’s a huge problem in India too, says Bejon Kumar Misra, a visiting professor at the National Law University, Odisha, who has spent over 35 years in consumer education and advocacy.
“The (green) claims made (by companies) are doubtful because these are not certified by any credible source. In my opinion, it is more a sales gimmick to mislead innocent and vulnerable consumers,” Professor Misra says.
Most such claims are self-proclaimed or certified by private agencies, which are neither transparent nor governed by any law.
Stakeholder expectations, growing renewable energy market, and financially sound alternatives can motivate brands to opt for green, says Gagan Sidhu, director, CEEW-Centre for Energy Finance, a Delhi-based think-tank and policy research institute.
“However, lack of efficient labelling and standard system can mislead even the brands to believe that they are green,” he adds.
In India, greenwashing is reported at only a small scale, says Manisha Kapoor, CEO and secretary general, Advertising Standards Council of India.
“Most actions we take are suo moto. We have caught a few brands that made claims they couldn’t justify in the testing. They have been stopped at an early stage,” Kapoor adds.
Green’s a grey area
The US has green codes defined by the Federal Trade Commission to prevent consumer from misleading marketing claims.
In January, Britain’s competition regulator said it would probe companies selling food, drink and toiletries that are being marketed as ‘sustainable’ or ‘better for the environment’.
The European Union is also planning to introduce laws to make companies prove their green claims.
Giving the example of Germany, Professor Misra says, “They have logos on packaging of the products to differentiate between genuine and fake products”.
In India, even though the Bureau of Indian Standards has not come up with green standards, a consumer can file greenwashing-related complaints with the Central Consumer Protection Authority, which handles misleading advertisements, says Rohit Kumar Singh, secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs.
“The Consumer Protection Act says nobody can indulge in unfair trading practices,” he says.
“Under the Act, guidelines regarding misleading advertisements were issued last year in June-July. We take action under these guidelines,” he adds.
Green standards are, however, mandatory for certain categories of products such as cosmetics, processed food, toiletries, etc, underscores consumer advocate Misra.
Beyond the narrative
Advertising professionals such as Rahul Mathew, chief creative officer, DDB Mudra Group, say ad agencies mostly go by the claims made by their clients.
“But as you work closely and get a deeper understanding of their business, you may catch glimpses of the green being grey,” he says.
“Then it’s upon the agency to advise the client.”
The other challenge is that the green claim can neither be fully believed nor can it be rejected without proper research.
“For instance, several e-commerce companies claim their packaging is recycled 13 times or some such. Now there’s no way of checking that,” says Singh.
Asci’s Kapoor adds that panels from different fields are included from time to time for specific areas of expertise like microbiology, environment and textile engineering to ascertain the veracity of the claims.
The auto industry has been particularly on the radar since the Volkswagen case came to light in 2015. The German auto giant had then admitted to cheating to pass the emission tests.
“Car ads promising low emission and biodegradable packaging have grey areas in their claims. They don’t give significant evidence for these claims,” says Asci’s Kapoor.
Consumer Affairs Secretary Singh adds that though this is unsubstantiated, auto could be one of the bigger industries involved in greenwashing.
Garment, FMCG and furniture manufacturers, too, are seen as culprits of greenwashing, says Professor Misra.
Both the consumer affairs department and Asci maintain that CCPA is strong enough to tackle advertising complaints related to greenwashing.
The problem, though, is that consumers in India currently do not have any way of telling whether a claim is authentic or greenwashing, says Professor Misra. And, he adds, one never hears of action against any company for making false claims of being environment-friendly.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com
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