UK authorities are taking more of an interest in the “green” claims businesses are making about their products and services. Greenwashing – the practice of making exaggerated claims about a business’s environmental credentials and the sustainability of its products, services and environmental impact – can expose it to breaches of consumer protection legislation. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is presently undertaking reviews of various sectors, especially those in retail and consumer-facing environments, to examine the extent of the issue.
Understand the rules
To help businesses and duty holders understand how existing consumer protection laws will be enforced in this area, the CMA published guidance for businesses in 2021 in the form of the Green Claims Code, which centres on six principles.
This code says that any green claims made by a business:
- Must be truthful and accurate
- Should be clear and unambiguous
- Should not omit or hide important information
- Should consider the full life cycle of what is being discussed
- Must be substantiated
Furthermore, it states that any comparative claims made should be fair and meaningful.
Aside from consumer protection from greenwashing in relation to goods, the topic is also a priority for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), especially where sustainable investment is involved, and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). In June 2023, the ASA commented that it “recognises that business anxiety around the risk of making ad claims that get banned for so-called greenwashing has been growing in recent months” (ASA, 2023). It also said, “Our sustained and ongoing regulatory scrutiny is driving debates about how businesses should respond.” The ASA has listed guides on how to advertise green credentials via a page on its site, greenspeakingwithconfidence.
The “green net” has widened
As well as the shift in regulatory focus, Stuart Ponting, a regulatory compliance partner at Walker Morris, says that “pressure is mounting on businesses in all sectors to clean up their act by virtue of the trend towards ‘green litigation’ – that is, complaints and claims brought for a range of environmental or climate-related reasons”. In his view, for a whole host of reasons, businesses – including veterinary practices – should “take action to ensure that green claims made in any and all sales, marketing, promotional, pre-contractual and contractual materials and communications are accurate and can be substantiated”.
The direction of travel for all sectors, whether they’re under the microscope at present or not, is clear: regulators have green claims in their sights
He points to the CMA’s Green Claims Code and the FCA’s Guiding Principles on Design, Delivery and Disclosure of ESG and Sustainable Investment Funds, published in July 2021, which he recommends businesses read and understand. Further, at the end of October 2022, the FCA proposed new rules to tackle greenwashing in relation to the provision of financial services in a document CP22/20.
The direction of travel for all sectors, whether they’re under the microscope at present or not, is clear: regulators have green claims in their sights.
Minimise the potential for challenge
With the background set out, there are some practical pointers Stuart thinks should help practices minimise the risk of inadvertent greenwashing or committing consumer protection breaches generally.
1) Ensure information is factual and fair
“First,” he says, “businesses should take care that all information, online and in all other forms, that is gathered and presented to consumers – potential and actual – is accurate, fair, not deceptive or misleading and does not leave out material facts.” For him, this means “introducing and implementing specific safeguarding procedures” as to the currency, accuracy and security of all such information.
Before publication, he highly recommends stepping back, evaluating, looking at the evidence and being satisfied that any claims you make can be backed up.
Next, he explains that practices should note that broad-brush green claims are more likely to be misleading, inaccurate or unsubstantiated than narrow, product- or service-specific assertions. Instead, Stuart says they ought to “create a culture that focuses on integrity and clearly demonstrable claims”.
2) Truth-telling is key
Allied to the above points, Stuart emphasises that it’s important to tell only the truth. By extension, he says that “organisations should ensure that green claims do not contain partially correct or incorrect aspects and ensure that any applicable conditions or caveats are clearly and prominently explained”.
Similarly, claims should accurately represent the entire life cycle of a product or service. For Stuart, this is likely to involve practices “proactively and regularly undertaking appropriate enquiries of other parties throughout the supply chain, as well as keeping their own house in order”. This also means considering whether systems and processes are adequate to manage this monitoring requirement.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that features or benefits that are necessary standards or legal requirements of a given product or service type should not be claimed as environmental benefits either
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that features or benefits that are necessary standards or legal requirements of a given product or service type should not be claimed as environmental benefits either.
3) Don’t just focus on the written word
But it’s not all about the written word – as Stuart points out, “green claims can also be made via visual graphics”. He adds that the FCA has previously pointed out “that logos, medals or other visual ‘rating’ assertions carry significant weight with consumers and can therefore carry a particularly significant risk of greenwashing where apparent quality and credibility cannot be substantiated”.
As a result, he says that practices should ensure written green claims and any visual graphics or symbols used “are critically assessed from the perspective of what a consumer will take them to mean – businesses need to consider the whole picture”.
4) Information is everything
Of course, information is everything. This is why Stuart’s next tip for compliance is for organisations to “signpost consumers to any additional information which might affect their decision to purchase”.
By way of example, Stuart says that “where green claims are made, say, on packaging or within media with limited space, additional, comprehensive information via website links or QR codes should be included”.
5) Training, training, training
Another solution towards compliance is to train all staff involved directly or indirectly with sales and marketing – including the production of hard and soft copy materials – of any veterinary practice services, products or brand. It follows that records and evidence of training should be retained.
At the same time, Stuart recommends introducing and implementing policies and procedures regarding the review, maintenance, correction and updating of marketing material and other client-facing information. Here, too, an audit trail of all these efforts should be maintained.
6) Seek professional advice
Stuart’s final recommendation is that if or when any greenwashing complaint or allegation is made, immediate specialist legal advice should be sought. He says this because “depending on the circumstances, there are usually a number of dispute resolution tools that can be deployed in defence or settlement of any complaint”.
It’s patently clear that clients are taking greater time to choose and buy products and services that are causing less harm – or even promoting positive benefits – to the environment. However, when false claims are made, consumer protection law gives clients protection while, at the same time, protecting businesses from unfair competition.
When false claims are made, consumer protection law gives clients protection while, at the same time, protecting businesses from unfair competition
From the CMA’s recent activity, it seems it won’t hesitate to act if there are concerns that consumer protection is being threatened.
Panel: “The profession in focus”
It’s clear that some in the profession are tuning into the concept of being “green”.
The Paragon Veterinary Group, based in Carlisle, has a whole page on its website dedicated to sustainability. The group has said it is “committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 […] and are hopeful we will achieve this sooner” (PVG, 2023). It added: “In short we are going green, without any of the green washing.”
The group has listed the various ways in which it is trying to be as green as possible, including:
- A “Green Group” of 15 “like-minded individuals”
- Performing a carbon audit at its two main branches to benchmark its sustainability plan
- Reducing travel for meetings, conferences and training
- Sending as little as possible to landfill or clinical waste and leaving what’s left to be recycled
- Buying what it can locally
The British Veterinary Association, too, has a page on its website detailing how it is “working towards a greener profession” (BVA, 2023). It noted that “in addition to their own footprint, the veterinary profession is closely involved with many sectors that have a direct impact on the environment. These are also topical areas in current conversations around sustainability such as food, farming and antimicrobial resistance.”
The BVA’s webpage highlights several green-practice webinars covering topics on water and energy use, sustainable surgery and use of consumables, and helping others make greener choices.
There are also a number of resources that include a Greener Veterinary Practice Checklist, a BVA sustainability in the veterinary profession action plan and details on the BVA’s position on UK sustainable animal agriculture. The question is – how are these efforts verified?