The Chartered Institute for Marketing (CIM) reports that 76% of marketers have been engaged in sustainability marketing in the last five years. However, the same research reveals that two-fifths of marketers currently don’t have any formal qualifications in the area despite their desire to attain such skills.[i] These findings come at a time when marketers will find the regulatory environment to be one of increasing scrutiny. In spring of 2023, the EU launched their proposal for a ‘Green Claims Directive’. The Directive lays out the first comprehensive set of guidelines for how businesses should market their environmental impacts and performance in the EU, with the goal of eradicating deceptive environmental messaging across all markets and addressing greenwashing problems. Many businesses will need to make major adjustments to how they presently support and convey their environmental claims, and how they handle data pertaining to their environmental credentials, as a result of the new regulations. The Directive's suggested scope is extensive. It would apply to statements made voluntarily about a positive environmental impact by a company, service, or organisation to customers in the EU. 'Carbon neutral,' 'net zero,' and 'packaging made from recycled plastic bottles' are a few well-known instances of these claims.[ii]
Take the above advert, for example; PepsiCo was very proud of their bottle job. But the closer you look, the clearer it becomes that it’s an entirely different kind of bottle job. It’s not to say that to have achieved 100% recycled plastic for the clear stuff that holds the drink isn’t worthy of celebration, it’s just that if you tell me a bottle is made with 100% recycled plastic I’d be expecting that to include the cap. Much like if you sold me a coffin, I’d want that to include a lid too.
It’s not just lids that are becoming the focus of greenwashing. The Climate Pledge Friendly line from Amazon is one particularly high profile example. This is a varied selection of about 75,000 items (0.02% of all items listed on the site), including food and beverages, that are loosely classified by ambiguous sustainability claims. Common third-party certification programmes like Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, and Soil Association Organic, as well as a number of carbon-neutral labels and Amazon's own "Compact by Design" certification, are among the standards and labels that certify a product as Climate Pledge Friendly. The latter only indicates that the package has lost some air or water. With a 16 oz. packet of beef jerky that has had part of the air removed from the container listed alongside packaging-free organic shampoo bars offers a confused and deceptive portrayal of what "climate-friendly" implies.[iii]
It’s perhaps not egregious misappropriations of the term 100% that the new ‘Green Claims Directive’ is primarily aimed at tackling, but instead the more insidious and murky waters of net zero and carbon neutral claims.
The largest food manufacturer in the world, Nestle, stated it would invest in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions rather than setting "carbon neutral" targets for brands like KitKat and Nespresso coffee which had been its strategy in the preceding years. The Swiss behemoth said two years ago that its KitKat chocolate brand will be carbon neutral by 2025. When that statement was made, the firm stated that while it would use "high-quality offsetting based on natural climate solutions," it would also strive to reduce emissions through adjustments to ingredient sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution.[iv] The change in direction comes as Dominic Watkins, partner at law firm DWF, tells Just Food:
“The days of offsetting-supported carbon-neutral claims are numbered”[v]
As the clock winds down on the halcyon days of whacking a carbon-neutral label on a product and instantly increasing your sales, the need for a keen ear for the green sphere will increase not only within organisations but for those that market the outputs of those organisations. Ensuring understanding of sustainability on both sides could help you avoid situations like that faced by Leon. With its "carbon neutral burger and fries" in 2021, the UK foodservice operator made an industry-leading claim, but last year it came under fire for the validity of the offsets it was utilising. It has since begun "phasing out the carbon messaging across our channels," and the material on its website has since vanished.[vi]
Whilst Leon’s green campaign’s Houdini impression is certainly one way to avoid the pressure coming down on businesses’ green claims, such an approach could cost you custom. CIM’s research found that 59% of consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 believe they are more likely to purchase goods or services from a company that promotes and verifies their sustainability. 63% of UK adults concur that businesses should communicate more about the sustainability of their goods and services.[vii]
This is why it’s key to ensure that you know everything from your scope 1, 2 and 3s to your offsets and planting trees, to guarantee that when it comes to marketing you can be proud of the reality you’ve created rather than a façade that could crumble at any moment. It’s important that anyone who markets for you is clued in too so that the best outcome for both parties can be achieved and any accusations of greenwashing can be avoided. Upskilling should always be considered an option to reach the sunlit uplands of a sustainable future and can be found on ZCA’s training page, but what better place to start than right here with our ever-growing library of insights?
Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.