“Greenwashing” suspicion: When “green” advertising is misleading


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Green advertising slogans, eco-labels and links to websites with sustainability promises can be found on countless products today. As a recent study by the EU Commission has shown, the majority is at least questionable. However, especially in the case of goods that have an environmentally harmful image, eco-advertising works in the interests of the manufacturer.

Because: Customers then believe in more sustainability – unlike products without green paint. This was the result of a study with more than 2000 respondents from a Göttingen institute commissioned by the German consumer advice centres. “Consumers often misjudge the reliability of advertising claims and seals on food,” says Jochen Geilenkirchen from the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv).

There are too many plaques

Labels, seals and test plaques are often not to be trusted. There are far too many of them to be able to control them, writes the Federal Environment Agency on request. Seals are only credible if it is proven what is actually better than what is required anyway. Independent auditors would also have to check the seal. But if you look around in the supermarket, you will find: none.

Again and again a state control system is demanded. Similar to the power consumption on electrical appliances, the sustainability of products should be shown in color, so the suggestion: with an “eco traffic light”. But unlike electricity consumption, ecological processes are difficult to measure. Measurements are mostly not normalized either; Results are not clear. Legal politicians say privately that no authority in Germany can and would not want to get involved in countless administrative legal proceedings with poorly classified producers. In addition, it is not the task of the state to control normal market activities.

competition law prohibits misleading advertising

However, the impression that anyone can promise anything in advertising is wrong. Customers must not be misled, nothing essential must be withheld from them and self-evident things must not be advertised.

In essence, however, it is not about customers, but about companies: German competition law protects reputable companies from competitors who gain advantages through false advertising promises. As a result, customers or consumer associations cannot sue, only competitors or their associations, such as the central competition office in Bad Homburg.

Courts always have averagely informed, reasonable customers in mind – and appropriate attention depending on the buying situation. “Consumers stand in front of the shelf. They want to make a purchase decision and do not make any deep, further considerations,” describes Tudor Vlah from the central competition office, describing the typical situation.

defeat in court

Four weeks ago, Vlah lost two cases before the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court. Candy manufacturers had advertised normal goods as “climate neutral”. It was only implicitly pointed out that the CO2 from production would be offset elsewhere. The court ruled that this was not misleading. Because consumers know from air travel, for example, that many services are harmful to the climate and CO2 can only be compensated for by participating in climate protection campaigns.

The Göttingen study by the consumer centers shows the opposite: 40 percent of those surveyed assume that “climate-neutral” means that CO2 emissions have been reduced in production and not only compensated for climate damage. “Any product can be compensated without being environmentally friendly,” complains competition advocate Vlah.

Sustainable sparkling water?

Kerstin Scheidecker, Managing Director of Öko-Test in Frankfurt am Main, gives other examples. “We have sunscreens that are reef friendly”. A sunscreen filter that allegedly could have attacked reefs in Hawaii was taken out and is now being advertised on the German Baltic Sea. “Biodegradable” doesn’t mean that baby wipes are compostable – on the contrary, they contain harmful chemicals. And: “What on earth is organic mineral water supposed to be?” Asks Scheidecker.

The EU Commission is planning to take action against false environmental statements in advertising. If the Commission drafts two guidelines, companies would have to prove “green” improvements if they want to advertise with environmental slogans. The ecological advances would have to be independently confirmed, evidence would have to be published. In the event of violations, the EU Commission is planning high fines. The Federal Association of Consumer Centers is pleased. In contrast, the drafts were already critically discussed at the German Lawyers’ Conference in June. Expensive bureaucracy, which all large companies can afford, was feared.

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