Beverage groups keeping hands clean amidst ‘greenwash’ attacks

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Environmentalism

Despite recent attacks on the environmental marketing of some beverages, drink and food manufacturers remain relatively behind other sectors in the practice of misleading green claims, says a marketing expert.

Ed Gillespie, creative director for communications group Futerra, said that ‘greenwashing’ has become an increasing problem in advertising, with complaints made to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) doubling this last year. However, as an overall sector, Gillespie said that drink makers appeared to be receiving less criticism for the practice than energy suppliers or carmakers.

The term ​Greenwashing​ has been coined to define the practice of marketing that misleads consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or a product. Validity of the term has been boosted by almost a decade long presence in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The comments come as smoothie maker Innocent earlier this week defended itself against accusations from the environmental group Rising Tide that it had been misleading consumers over some of its green credentials.

Innocent, like a growing number of beverage and food manufacturers including Coca-Cola and Foster's, has moved to play up their efforts to ensure more sustainable production of their brands amidst regulator and consumer pressure.

Particularly with the emergence of the ‘green pound’ notion, which suggests that companies are targeting consumers more willing to switch to greener brands, environmental adverts are growing in importance, according to Futerra.

The situation has been seen in the case of the global bottled water market, where companies like Nestle Water have vowed to up spending on promoting more positive environmental claims about their products, over recent eco criticisms of the industry.

According to Futerra estimates, about £17 million was spent on promotions that used terms like CO2’, ‘carbon’, ‘environmental’, ‘emissions’ or ‘recycle’ between September 2006 and August 2007. Similar reports said that spending on these type of adverts amounted to just £448,000 in 2003, according to the group.

‘Vital’ Scrutiny

Gillespie told that the focus on green washing practices was not entirely detrimental for manufacturers and other corporate organisations. He claimed that criticisms from consumers and environmental groups of some promotional materials do have a vital role to play in safeguarding more factual marketing, though a balance between acceptance and antagonism was needed.

“Green washing can provide much needed scrutiny of the ad practices of leading organisations,”​ he stated. ”However, there needs to be some a parity to prevent a backlash from companies who may become reluctant to promote their environmental focuses over fears of attacks.”

This industry had already coined the term ‘green hushing’ in a bid to reflect these concerns, Gillespie claimed.

Global advertising standards

At the UK level, there is currently no direct legislation against misleading consumers on the true ecological affects of a particular product or service.

According to Futerra, which itself specialises as a communication group specifically focused on sustainability issues, for what it claims are carefully chosen organisations, non-binding guidelines on green advertising do exist.

These include the ASA’s Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code, which has made a number of revisions to its stance on environmental claims since 1995, said the communications specialist. The latest, implemented in 2003, led to the slight revamp of Green Claims Code for advertisers and companies in line with the new International Standard on Environmental Claims ISO 14001.

The changes target areas such as the use of environmental imagery as an additional focus. Failure to do so can incur the wrath of the ASA.

These policies are not uniform across the EU though, with a number of other member states adopting slightly different approaches against green washing.

In France, a similar non-bonding stance was taken against green claims back in 1998, that has been amended again this year. The ‘Charte d’engagement et d’objectifs pour une publicité eco-responsible’, which is led by advertising professionals, can now impose fines and call for the withdrawal of offending material.

In Norway, concerns over some claims being made by motoring groups about their environmental impact has resulted in a warning being published on the specific words allowed to promote a product. This is currently just set out for motor vehicles, Futerra added.

Ten signs of the green wash

As part of its own report into environmental advertising entitled, the Greenwash Guide, Futerra claims to have identified ten clear cut areas that manufacturers have been caught out regarding green claims. These include:

  • The use of words or terminology like eco friendly, which fail to provide any specific meaning to a claim
  • The manufacture of green products by a company with an image of having environmental problems
  • The use of pictures to promote an unjustifiable green image, like flowers in exhaust pipes
  • Playing up one green achievement of a company’s operations, while other areas are lacking
  • Declaring a product is greener than a rival brand, which may have a poor ecological impact
  • Promoting the environmental benefits of ‘harmful’ products like cigarettes
  • The use of complicated scientific jargon
  • Made up third party endorsements and labels
  • Unproven environmental claims
  • Complete lies

Innocent response

Amidst the claims that Innocent has served to mislead consumers with claims that its drinks were produced in Britain and its “fruit always travels by boat or rail”, the beverage group denied any wrongdoing.

In a statement posted on the company’s website, Innocent accepted that some of its information on line had been out of date, but its environmental claims remained valid, particularly in terms of carbon footprint.

We want to make the best quality drinks with the lowest possible carbon impact. To do so, we buy the best ingredients possible and then find the most carbon-efficient way of getting them to our drinkers,”​ the company stated. “We have a policy of moving our ingredients by land or sea only; we will not air freight them.”

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