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With more and more consumers looking to make environmentally responsible choices, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has gone on the hunt for greenwashing in the food and drink industry.
“Increasing numbers of people are quite rightly concerned about the environment and want to play their part by being greener. Our role is to make sure that consumers can trust the claims they see on products for sale and don’t fork out extra for items falsely presented as eco-friendly,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA.
In 2019, consumers spent £41bn on ethical goods and services, almost four times the amount spent two decades previously, the competition watchdog said.
However, based on its own research and that of other enforcers, the CMA is worried that this surge in demand for green products could lead some businesses to make misleading, vague or false claims about the sustainability or environmental impact of their products.
Rod Challis, waste management expert at Certified Sustainable, said the greenwashing issue for food and drink is “enormous”.
“It’s getting to the stage where the greater the claim, the less believable it is. Sustainability seems to have become a marketing fad or buzzword. Supermarkets, large retailers and brand builders are jumping on to the ‘sustainability sells’ bandwagon, and as a result media is awash with sustainability claims,” Rod explained.
According to the CMA, greenwashing for food and drink appears as an exaggerated positive environmental impact of a product, complex or jargon-heavy language, or a false implication that items are eco-friendly through packaging and logos.
Rod says packaging and labelling are the main culprits. “Claims of food produce being organic or Farm Assured are regulated by many standards and protocols and can easily be substantiated. Processing and production of food and food products are also regulated and the waste arising largely put to good use,” he said.
“The problem lies in packaging and labelling. While all the claims of reducing plastic use are genuine and good, it’s mainly the marketing angle, more sales and consumer convenience that takes precedence over sustainability when changes are made,” Rod said.
Packaging claims, green colours, natural imagery and words like natural, pure, non-toxic and earth-friendly, are not always what they seem. How can retailers be sure they’re stocking the real deal?
Currently, there is no way for retailers to verify suppliers’ green credentials or greenwashing claims, Rod said. He suggested suppliers and producers use the Certified Sustainable platform to showcase good environmental practices.
“The platform’s Product Passport, parked on a website or under a QR code on the product, provides complete and full transparency at a glance for any retailer or consumer to see,” he said.
Finn Cottle, trade consultant at Soil Association Certification, agreed that with so many ethical and environmental labels included on packs today, it can be difficult to navigate what the most ethical choices are.
In order to be sure the food and drink they choose has been produced to the highest environmental and animal welfare standards, Finn said retailers and consumers can look for organic certification.
“In the UK, any food or drink product sold as ‘organic’ is legally required to comply with EU standards and must be certified by an accreditation body, like Soil Association Certification, to ensure that any organic claims can be substantiated, and that every organisation working up and down its supply chain – from farmers, to packers, to food processors, and organic retailers – meet organic standards,” Finn explained.
Organic certification requires a higher level of animal welfare, fewer pesticides, no artificial fertilisers and no routine use of antibiotics. “All organic farms and food companies are thoroughly inspected at least once a year and must have robust systems in place and paperwork that shows the standards are being met the rest of the time,” Finn said.
B Corporation is another strong certification to look out for. Certified B Corp companies are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on the environment, as well as their workers, customers, suppliers and community.
Retailers should also be sure that any unfamiliar certifications or claims made on packs are backed up with further explanation. If this can’t be easily found, it may be a red flag.
By next summer, the CMA said it will publish guidance for businesses to help them support the transition to a low-carbon economy without misleading consumers. Andrea Coscelli said: “It’s important that people can easily choose between those who are doing the right thing for the environment and those who are not, so that businesses genuinely investing in going green can be properly rewarded by their customers.”