No to greenwashing: empowering consumers for the green transition  

Based on previous publication in European Files magazine, p.53 by Miriam Thiemann and Orla Butler.

More than half of EU consumers have their environmental impact in mind when shopping, a European Commission survey revealed. While this is good news, a worrying byproduct is a proliferation of green marketing, with 75% of products on the market carrying an implicit or explicit environmental claim. This is causing distrust and confusion with consumers – and rightfully so: a recent screening of green claims by consumer authorities revealed that 42% of claims were potentially misleading and 59% were without easily accessible and available evidence. 

Across the EU, citizens want long-lasting products, and devices that can be fixed when they fail. Consumers are almost three times more likely to choose products with the highest durability on offer – given that they have reliable information. But despite this, there is more and more evidence of shortening product life spans.  It has somehow become widely accepted that even the most high-tech devices last no more than a few years. 

To combat deceptive claims and short-lived products, the EU Commission has released its proposal Empowering consumers for the Green Transition in March 2022. The proposal has two important objectives: firstly, to help consumers make more sustainable purchases decisions through better product information, and secondly, to protect consumers from greenwashing and early obsolescence.   

The file is currently being discussed in Parliament and Council. While there are already useful points, the EEB suggests several improvements to really empower people to consume more sustainably and navigate the green transition. 

Getting rid of greenwashing 

The proposal contains much-needed rules to limit the proliferation of misleading green claims and labels: importantly, it forbids the use of general green claims unless they are backed by robust methods such as the EU Ecolabel, proving environmentally excellent performance. It also requires that all sustainability labels are based on minimum credibility and transparency principles, such as independent verification.   

But how can market surveillance authorities and companies be able to easily identify whether labels comply with strict rules? Instead of relying on lengthy case-by-case assessments, the EU should introduce a pre-approval approach. Sustainability labels, as well as sustainability information tools (e.g., filters allowing to find seemingly more sustainable products in web shops) should be assessed by an EU level body and all approved labels should be transparently listed in a public registry, so to say a whitelist of labels. That would support efficient enforcement, and importantly, achieve a better protection of consumers against vague, incorrect or untransparent information.   

Misleading carbon neutral claims remain unaddressed

Another crucial shortcoming of the proposal is that it does not address misleading carbon neutral claims. Carbon neutral claims represent one of the most widespread claims on products today, found on anything from food items to cross-continental flights, but they are also one of the most misleading and require urgent attention.  

In the current proposal, these claims would still be allowed if the measurement method is stated. However, to claim carbon neutrality of their products, services or even the entire organisation, companies usually rely on carbon offsets. But science tells us that offsetting is not a good idea. A recent investigation has found that 90% of offset credits sold by the world’s biggest provider are worthless and not based on real emission reductions. What’s more, offsets can deter companies from taking real climate action and changing their operations to achieve actual emission reductions. Moreover, the majority of consumers are misled by the term “climate neutral” and are induced to believe that a climate neutral product or service is automatically environmentally friendly. While in fact, it’s oftentimes highly polluting sectors, like aviation and automotive, that use this term to make their business appear greener. 

Therefore, the proposal should directly prohibit climate neutrality claims that are based on offsets. 

Purchasing products that last 

As our dependence on electronics grows, so must our action to counter their environmental consequences. Despite the fact that waste electronics is the fastest growing waste stream, only 17% of global e-waste is actually recycled. The best way to tackle this problem and reduce hazardous e-waste is to use our electronics as long as possible. This means being able to fix our devices when they break. The proposal on empowering consumers is an opportunity to address some of these issues by integrating the right to repair within it.  

Using devices for as long as possible can be unnecessarily difficult, as they become obsolete earlier than their expected lifetimes. For example, when manufacturers stop making software updates available for a device, this can render them useless – even if the hardware is still fully functional. This proposal seeks to tackle these so-called early obsolescence practices through information requirements, such as the requirement to inform if a product contains a feature that will limit repair by independent professionals or end-users. For example, remember those ‘warranty void’ stickers, that scared users away from dismantling their faulty devices for fear that the warranty would be voided if the sticker was removed? 

To help consumers avoid such deception, products subject to practices which foreseeably reduce the lifespan of the good should be banned from the market. Such practices include inducing consumers to replace a product’s consumables earlier than is necessary, or using software locks to limit the functionality of a device if off-brand consumables are used. A notorious case of this is printers that stopped working properly if non-original manufacturer ink cartridges were used.  

Removing barriers to repair 

Further information on the product’s expected lifetime and protection through product guarantees would also improve consumers’ ability to purchase longer-lasting products. Consumers should be aware of what could happen during their product’s lifespan, for example, whether the seller will refuse to perform a repair on a product that has previously been repaired outside the original manufacturer’s network. Placing an obligation on producers to grant access to other information such as availability of parts and tools, repair manuals, and information on software updates is equally important to give customers the whole picture of what they’re buying. 

The removal of these barriers to repair is key to developing a thriving repair economy, reducing e-waste and protecting consumer rights. Not only is it better for the environment, but it’s what consumers want

Shifting the burden 

Tightening up the proposal’s loose ends is a step towards a circular economy with consumers at the forefront. Yet changing consumption patterns is the responsibility of all, not just individual consumers. Policy makers have the responsibility to provide the right ecosystem so that consumers can change consumption patterns and have the right tools at hand. Policy must be coupled with corporate responsibility, as a consumer’s freedom of choice is subject to what’s on offer. If sustainable choices are not the default, and we are continuously bombarded with false advertising, then consumers are neither free nor empowered.  

Curious about more details? Find all our recommendations on how to improve the proposal here: