Goodbye greenwashing, hello carbon labelling

Prior to our next webinar, we ask whether carbon labelling is part of the future of food.

by Bella Ali-Khan | Environmental | 5 December 2023

Generic, unsubstantiated sustainability claims are widespread across all industries. From food to fashion, transport to technology. Brands have been able to communicate that they or their products are ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘eco-friendly’ without validation, confusing and misleading consumers. Well, not for long.

In September 2023, MEPs backed legislation that will tackle greenwashing, and avoid deceptive practices that erode trust in consumer purchasing. Coming into effect in 2026, the EU law will ban sustainability labels not based on certification schemes, clean up the murky waters of ‘offsetting’ and ban ‘generic environmental claims’ that have no validation.  

So the question is, how will these new laws impact the food and beverage industry? What will the changes be? Some brands and businesses are ahead of the curve, already calculating and communicating resource efficiency. But is the world ready for widespread carbon labelling?

What’s changing? 

These new rules come as a two-faceted piece of EU legislation; the Green Claims Directive and the Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition Directive. They might not be catchy, but they’re set to have a huge impact. 

The new legislation includes: 

  1. Generic environmental claims

A ban on generic environmental claims that can’t demonstrate an excellent environmental performance. 

Phrases such as ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘natural,’ ‘biodegradable,’ or ‘eco,’ will no longer be usable, unless they can be validated. This will also include very vague marketing phrases such as ‘green,’ ‘nature’s friend,’ and ‘energy efficient.’ 

  1. Carbon neutral or carbon negative 

Claims that products are carbon neutral or carbon negative due to emissions offsetting will also be banned. 

  1. Spurious sustainability claims 

There’ll be a ban on sustainability labels not based on certification schemes or established by public authorities. Brands also won’t be able to promote requirements imposed by law as distinctive features. 

  1. Future environmental performance claims

Future environmental performance claims will only be allowed if they include a realistic implementation plan with feasible targets. They’ll need to be regularly reviewed by independent third-party experts, with findings made available to consumers.

  1. Repairability and software updates

New information obligations on repairability and software updates to help consumers choose more sustainable products.

  1. Durability and guarantee labels 

Guarantee labels will be harmonised, to inform consumers about the durability of products on the market.

  1. Premature obsolescence practices

And finally, a ban on business’ premature obsolescence practices, which can cause early product failures.

Why did this come about?

Greenwashing and spurious environmental claims are rife. Consumers are demanding better eco credentials from the products they buy, and many brands are responding. However, without proper regulation, the green waters are being muddied by vague and unquantifiable claims. 

Research by the EU in 2020 found that 53% of environmental claims examined were vague, misleading or unfounded. 40% were unsubstantiated (1). In January 2023, the Guardian found that over 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by the biggest certifier were worthless (2). And further research by the ASA discovered that consumers tended to feel misled when they learned that companies were often relying on offsetting, either partially or wholly, rather than directly reducing carbon emissions. (3)

The aim of this new legislation is clear – to guide consumers into making more sustainable consumption choices, by bringing labelling into line, across the board. 

The two directives will come into force in 2026. From then, brands must be able to rigorously prove how their products are environmentally friendly if they want to market it as such. And, as this legislation is an update to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), the enforcement mechanisms are already in place.

What does this mean for the food industry?

Naturally, not all of these new rules will apply to the food and beverage industry, however, the impact of the new legislation will be undeniably huge. With so many brands using carbon credits or questionable marketing claims, we expect to see some big changes. The new rules will encompass everything from packaging to production, ingredients to shipping. 

Just this month, The European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, reported misleading claims from brands including Coca-cola, Danone and Nestlé to the EU authorities. BEUC is calling into question the brands’ use of the terms ‘100% recyclable,’ ‘100% recycled,’ and green imagery/branding (4) on drinks bottles. 

Similarly, The Grocer has revealed that leading certifier, The Carbon Trust is dropping the carbon-neutral label that appears on 886 food and drink products. These are from huge brands such as Lidl, Evian and Wyke Farms (5). As a replacement, The Carbon Trust is releasing four new labels, focusing on emissions reductions and carbon footprint comparisons. These will allow consumers to compare emissions on plant-based versions of comparable products and review specific emissions reductions per product (6).

In an age of hyper awareness, consumers will now have the tools to better question their choices. Instead of drowning in varying labels, marketing wording and green claims, products will have to offer holistic labelling. And there lies an opportunity for brands already making an effort. Brands are better off spending on genuine emissions reductions, rather than meaningless offsets, so companies already engaged in this currently have the upper hand. 

But many questions remain. What does this mean for SMEs? How about brands that are notably not sustainable?

The future of food labelling

These are the questions we’ll be tackling during our next panel debate on 31st January 2024. We’ll be talking to industry experts from across the food and beverage industry on what to expect, and how businesses big and small can get ready for carbon labelling. Keen to know more?

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