Magazine article New Zealand Management

Greenwashing: A Challenge for Business to Manage Green Claims: As More and More Companies Jump on the Green Bandwagon, Regulators Are Increasing Their Scrutiny of the Credentials

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Greenwashing: A Challenge for Business to Manage Green Claims: As More and More Companies Jump on the Green Bandwagon, Regulators Are Increasing Their Scrutiny of the Credentials

Article excerpt

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The Commerce Commission (the 'Commission') has recently signalled that businesses making inflated, inaccurate or unsubstantiated 'green' claims about their goods and services will run a high risk of being investigated for breaching the Fair Trading Act (FTA). More and more businesses are hoping to capitalise on consumer awareness of the environment, with this reaching unprecedented levels.

The Commission has become concerned that consumers are vulnerable to being misled by false and deceptive claims, in addition to some businesses gaining an unfair market advantage over others due to inaccurate greenwashing claims.

WHAT IS GREENWASHING? Greenwashing refers to the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a service. Generally speaking, a claim such as 'certified carbon neutral' is acceptable if it can be shown that the claim is accurate and can be verified by an organisation with wide industry or governmental backing. Claims such as 'environmentally friendly' or 'eco-safe' are considered to be too broad, vague and cannot be backed up with scientific evidence--therefore they are likely to be 'greenwashing' and best avoided. The deputy chair of the Australian equivalent of the Commerce Commission, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC) summed it up by saying "if you cannot back a claim up with verified scientific evidence, don't make it".

A recent example of a business being caught out by the Commission for greenwashing, is Wellington Combined Taxis. This company claimed on its website that it was "New Zealand's first certified carbon neutral taxi company". The company also made claims as to the fuel efficiency of its fleet and claimed its LPG cars "reduce C[O.sub.2] emissions by up to 25 percent". After investigating these claims the Commission stated that Combined Taxis had breached the FTA due to the information being misleading and because it could not substantiate its fuel efficiency and emission claims. In light of this case the Commission announced that it would be making 'greenwashing' a new area of focus.

Adrian Sparrow, the director of Fair Trading, issued the following warning: "All those in business making such claims should take a good hard look at how they might justify those claims, as the Commission will be monitoring the issue closely."

THE COMMERCE COMMISSION As noted on its website, the Commission "enforces legislation that promotes competition in New Zealand markets and prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct by traders". It is common for the Commission to have 'focus areas'--areas or sectors of the market that are closely scrutinised. In the past, claims of being "GE Free" and "organic" have been subject to this increased scrutiny, largely because it is difficult for consumers in this situation to check the accuracy of the claims themselves. They are therefore entirely dependent on the honesty of the trader. For this reason, the Commission takes extra care in ensuring these claims are accurate, and will readily take businesses to court if they believe their conduct has misled consumers.

So how can businesses avoid becoming the subject of an investigation by the Commission? The ACCC has moved more rapidly in this space than our own Commission, and it is likely any guidelines developed in Australia will heavily influence any future New Zealand guidelines. The ACCC released a document in February of this year titled 'Green Marketing and the Trade Practices Act' (the equivalent to our FTA). …

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