Cutting through the green smokescreen

The EU is taking an important step to combat widespread ‘greenwashing’ and ensure that consumers have access to accurate and reliable information about the environmental performance of products and services.

Did you know that no less than 53% of examined explicit environmental claims in the European Union, declaring that certain products are ‘greener’, ‘more sustainable’, or ‘eco-friendlier’ than others were found to be vague, misleading, or unfounded, while 40% were unsubstantiated? This was discovered through an impact assessment report undertaken by the European Commission in 2020.

Explicit environmental/green claims are statements that describe the environmental performance of a product or service. These claims can be made in a variety of ways, such as on product packaging, in advertising, or on websites.

Last year, The Guardian reported that, according to an investigation, the forest carbon offsets approved by Verra, the world’s leading certifier and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci, and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global warming worse. The British newspaper revealed that, “based on analysis of a significant percentage of the projects, more than 90% of their rainforest offset credits – among the most commonly used by companies – are likely to be ‘phantom credits’ and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.”

As it was evident that the absence of specific EU rules on the matter has been contributing to this situation, on 22nd March 2023 the European Commission proposed legislation aimed at creating the encironment to ensure that consumers can be sure that green claims are reliable, comparable, and verifiable throughout the Union. The proposed legislation, commonly known as the ‘Green Claims Directive’, is currently undergoing scrutiny by the EU’s co-legislative bodies: the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament.

The proposed directive mandates that businesses would have to substantiate their voluntary environmental claims made in business-to-consumer interactions, adhering to a set of criteria governing their assessment. It also establishes requirements for communicating these claims and introduces rules for environmental labeling schemes. Compliance with these requirements would have be verified and certified by an independent third-party.

Maltese MEP is co-rapporteur

The European Parliament has entrusted the drawing up of its report on this piece of legislation jointly to the Committees on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) and on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), appointing Maltese MEP Cyrus Engerer (S&D, ENVI) co-rapporteur.

In a conversation with The Journal on the margins of the EP plenary session currently convening in Strasbourg, Engerer said that the target is for the directive to go to plenary in March. He stressed the urgency of addressing the issue, emphasising that it is unacceptable for consumers to continue being misled. He further highlighted the unfairness of this practice by noting that it puts companies that genuinely prioritise environmental sustainability at a competitive disadvantage. Therefore, the proposed legislation aims to restore consumer trust in green claims, protect the environment, and ensure a level playing field for businesses.

Maltese MEP Cyrus Engerer (S&D) speaking with The Journal on the margins of the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Photo: David Mallia

Modifications introduced by the proposal

The requirements included in the proposed directive would apply to specific aspects of explicit environmental claims. It would apply to voluntary explicit environmental claims and environmental labelling schemes which are not regulated by any other EU acts or the future regulation establishing an EU certification framework for carbon removals.

Amongst other measures, EU Member States would have to ensure that businesses conduct a comprehensive evaluation to validate their explicit environmental claims, adhering to a set of standards, including:

– specifying if the claim concerns the whole product or part of it, or if the claim concerns all activities of a company or only some of them;

– basing claims on widely recognised scientific evidence, using accurate information and international standards;

– taking a life-cycle perspective;

– taking all the significant environmental aspects and impacts into account to assess the environmental performance;

– demonstrating that the claim is not equivalent to requirements imposed by law;

– providing information whether the product or company subject to the claim performs significantly better than in common practice;

– checking that a positive achievement has no harmful impacts on climate change, resource consumption and circularity, sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources, pollution, biodiversity, animal welfare and ecosystems;

– reporting greenhouse gas offsets in a transparent way: separating greenhouse gas emissions offsets from greenhouse gas emissions, specifying whether the offsets concern emission reductions or removals, and providing information on the quality ofthe offsets;

– including primary information (directly measured or collected by the company);

– including secondary information (based on other sources than primary information, such as literature studies, engineering studies and patents), when no primary information is available.

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