Wish to empower consumers? Blacklist greenwashing and early obsolescence

Since the publication of this article, the European Parliament has voted for a stronger EU law to safeguard consumers from deceptive environmental claims and early obsolescence. The Directive on Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition is now undergoing interinstitutional negotiations involving the European Parliament, the European Commission and member states’ ministers.

Greenwashing and early obsolescence continue to cause confusion for consumers, but a new EU law may soon crack down on unfair commercial practices. Campaigners call on the European Parliament to ban a blacklist of seven company tactics that hamper consumers’ sustainable shopping choices, write Orla Butler, Miriam Thiemann and Roberta Arbinolo. 

Consumers across the EU are eager to participate in the green transition and reduce their environmental impact: data show that over half of them keep sustainability in mind when shopping.

However, identifying the most environmentally friendly products can be a challenge: whether it be through sticking unsubstantiated sustainability labels on their items, claiming a product is carbon neutral, or introducing a hidden feature that limits the lifespan of a device, many companies are using all kind of tactics to make us believe their offering is the greenest – even when it is not the case.

To address this issue, the EU is working on a new law that should empower consumers by prohibiting these practices. 

In the coming weeks, the European Parliament will have a say on the law. Here is a blacklist of the top seven misleading practices that they should ban.

1. Climate neutral myths 

In times of a climate crisis, more and more products and services are sold as ‘climate neutral’, ‘climate positive’ or similar: we can find such claims in many sectors, from food and clothes, to flights and entire companies. 

However, climate neutrality is impossible to achieve on a product or company level. Moreover, in most cases these claims are not based on actual emission reductions, but on the purchase of offsetting credits. This is highly problematic for many reasons: for example, it was recently revealed that 90% of the credits sold by the world’s largest credit provider Verra are worthless.  

The same is true when products or entire businesses claim that they will become climate neutral in the future (like in 30 years’ time), without any concrete commitment, nor any consequences if the promise is not fulfilled.  

Overall, climate neutrality claims mislead consumers into believing that products or services have no impact or a reduced impact on the climate, when this is actually not the case.

2. Vague and untransparent claims 

Consumers are exposed to an overflood of green claims, be it via explicitly written credentials, logos or the use of colours and design in a product or its packaging: a recent inventory of over 1,000 products showed 80% of them came with a green claim.

This can be very confusing and, in many cases, it is not justified. For instance, many of these claims are too vague and untransparent to be reliable. Very generic green claims like “green”, “eco” and alike should be banned, unless the sustainability of the entire product or service is proven by the most ambitious certifications such as the EU Ecolabel.

Moreover, environmental claims should only be allowed if there is a relevant assessment method established at EU or national level to justify the claim. Otherwise, companies can base their green advertisement on methods that are not fit to substantiate their claim. For example, the Norwegian Consumer Authority has recently found that the Higg Material Sustainability Index commonly used to back sustainability claims by the textile industry was misleading consumers.

While many vague and deceitful labels are a matter of greenwashing, “social washing” is highly problematic too: “fairly produced” or “socially just” credentials are a growing issue and are equally misleading. The same strict rules should therefore apply for both environmental and social claims.

3. Meaningless labels 

The EU market knows over 200 ecolabels – without counting all the food labels. Are all of these transparent, ambitious and unique in their added value? Unfortunately not. 

The uncontrolled proliferation of ecolabels goes against the very purpose of green credentials: to guide consumers towards truly sustainable choices. 

The European Commission has rightfully proposed better rules to make sustainability labels more transparent and reliable, suggesting, for instance, that any label should be backed up by a robust certification scheme. 

In order to be effective, such schemes should also ensure that their requirements are publicly available, independently developed and ambitious compared to the status quo, and that the monitoring of compliance is verified by a third-party, independent from the scheme owner and the trader. 

To make sure these rules are eventually applied, the EU could establish a whitelist of labels: this would mean that sustainability labels could only be used once a EU authority has confirmed their compliance with the rules for certification schemes, making it easier for both companies and market surveillance bodies to identify reliable labels. 

4. Early obsolescence: unfair in all circumstances 

The durability of a product is a key part of its sustainability. However, manufacturers are too often deliberately limiting their products’ lifespan below what would be technically possible, to stimulate the purchase of new products: this is called early obsolescence and it is worryingly widespread today, especially when it comes to electronics. 

Although these practices are difficult to prove, examples range from using low-quality plastic components in devices that wear away after a certain period, to printers displaying an ‘end-of-life service message’ once their hard-to-replace ink pads become saturated. Some printer brands have already been fined for such misleading practices.

While this may be profitable for companies, consumers and the environment end up footing the bill for these throwaway products. It is therefore key to ban all forms of early obsolescence. 

5. Dodgy use of software 

Software can also be used to limit a product’s lifespan. Many companies do this by providing software updates that slow down the performance of a device, or by not providing the necessary updates to keep the product functioning – even if the hardware still works perfectly. This often happens too early, with big brands only providing software support for a few years, even for devices such as TVs and washing machines, which should last much longer.

6. Expensive spare parts: when repairs cost more than a brand-new device 

Repairing broken devices allows to save precious resources and cut environmental impacts, and should make economic sense for consumers too – yet it is too often more expensive to repair a device rather than to replace it. 

This happens because devices are often designed so that only parts from the original manufacturer can be used to repair the product. This gives manufacturers total control over the price of spare parts, when they decide to provide them at all: there is no open, competitive repair market. This is why it turns out cheaper to replace a smartphone entirely, even when it just needs a quick battery swap

7. Blocking independent repair or self-repair 

Consumers are too often scared away from fixing their devices themselves, due to manufacturer’s tactics blocking repair outside the original manufacturer’s network. 

Such tactics can include refusing to fix a product that has previously been repaired outside the manufacturer’s network. This is the case for the ‘warranty-void stickers’ on laptops that dissuade users from even opening their own device.

Another deceitful practice blocking independent repairers and end-users from fixing their devices is part-pairing: this involves serializing a spare part with a code that only a manufacturer can access, and then pairing this part to an overall device. When someone else tries to replace this part, the device can recognise the part as non-original and block certain functionalities through pop-ups that cannot be deleted. This means users do not have full choice of what to do with their device. 

Time to turn the tables 

All these strategies represent unfair commercial practices that deceive consumers instead of empowering them. 

This spring, the European Parliament will have the chance to turn the tables, with the upcoming vote of the Internal Market Committee at the end of March, and the plenary vote expected in April: it is time to give power back to consumers by enhancing the law proposed by the European Commission and blacklist these practices.