Consumers shouldn’t be left feeling overwhelmed and unable to work out what is the right option because of poor quality and potentially misleading green claims.
We’ve all seen them, vague and unhelpful green claims on products that make you think – so what I am supposed to do with this? Or as one person told us in CPRC’s survey of consumer views on green claims: ‘carbon neutral… what the heck is that?’. For anyone who has tried to better understand a claim or try to make a decision based off a green claim, it can be incredibly frustrating and demoralising.
Like many consumers, one way I tried to adopt more ethical shopping practices was to use an app to check the sustainability of a company and understand the corporate structure and parent company’s practices. I was trying to shop by my values. The reality was, I would spend 20 mins trying to decide between different toothpastes, or I would leave the shops, frustrated without what I needed because I couldn’t work out the best option. All of the brands seemed to fail my ethical tests or there just wasn’t enough information. I found myself in decision paralysis because the information I had wasn’t useful or clear.
The quality of green claims hasn’t improved. I recently undertook research to gain a better understanding of green claims available in the market. I looked at what a typical person would come across as they did their weekly shopping, looked for flights, shopped for new shoes or considered what type of bank or superannuation fund they should consider.
I found 122 green claims within a 24-hour period across a range of sectors, both online and off. That isn’t surprising as marketers and businesses are trying to tap into a growing desire of many Australians to be sustainable when choosing consumer goods. What worried me was that I only found 39 claims that had some form of supporting information, trustmark or certification that might help a consumer to trust the claim was true or help them to use the green claim to inform a decision or an action. The nature of green claims means that consumers can’t easily verify them—they are left hoping that businesses are doing the right thing and following through on their sustainable promises.
When businesses use vague claims like ‘Power as green as our spinach’ or ‘Eat me and save the planet’ then they are taking advantage of our desire to buy green without following through on the detail that demonstrates that our purchase will be meaningful.
CPRC surveyed Australians about their experiences with green claims. We found that a high number of Australians recall seeing green claims across thirteen sectors. Many are making purchases because of green claims – for example, 47% of people have purchased household cleaning products because of their green claims \. Worryingly many people – 45% – think someone trusted is verifying green claims before they are used in the market. This could lead to consumers acting on a green claim under the premise it has already been checked. This isn’t the current practice. Businesses are able to make claims without anyone proactively checking if they’re true.
Our research found that people are worried about greenwashing, where a business lies about their green credentials. If businesses are found engaging in greenwashing, they will face a serious backlash: 47% of people say they’ll stop buying from that business and 35% will warn their friends and family to do the same. Consumers also told us they would feel manipulated, it would make purchasing sustainable products harder in the future and they’d trust green claims less. There are real consumer harms and business consequences to poor quality green claims and greenwashing.
So, how do we make green claims more useful and meaningful? Consumers cannot be responsible for holding businesses to account. It is incumbent on businesses to step up and make sure their claims are truthful and aid consumer understanding. Businesses must be transparent about the actions they are taking to make sure their claims are true.
For those businesses that are already doing the right thing, they need to apply peer pressure to ensure the rest are held to account. Where there is greenwashing and poor-quality claims, consumer trust and willingness to act will be impacted if they are weary that all marketing is just an attempt to get them to spend money.
Our laws need to change as well, because while regulators are taking actions to stamp out greenwashing, the existing laws are unlikely to be enough to deal with this issue. This is particularly the issue where green claims are not strictly misleading but are so vague to be meaningless, still leading to poor consumer outcomes.
There are serious consequences if we get this wrong. Dodgy green claims create immediate consumer harm as people spend on products that don’t deliver on their promises. In the longer term, greenwashing will likely erode consumer trust and lead to reduced environmental action and willingness to adopt sustainable behaviours. This isn’t just a matter of failing to make a purchase because you feel overwhelmed, although we have enough on our collective plates that this is justification enough to tackle this issue. Greenwashing can impact our ability to adopt more sustainable consumption, achieve net zero, reduce pollution and halt biodiversity loss. We need to make it much easier to be green.
Policy and Program Director
Kristal has extensive experience in the energy and water sectors. Kristal has worked for the federal government on a range of energy issues from electricity and gas pipeline regulation through to residential energy efficiency measures.