Greener and cleaner products are essential to foster long-term sustainable and environmentally friendly economic growth. Active support from consumers is crucial, however, to make markets for green products work effectively. This means that consumers need to:
- be well informed about the environmental attributes of the products that they are purchasing,
- be aware of the environmental consequences of their decisions,
- know what they can do to be environmentally responsible.
What can be done to ensure the accuracy, clarity and effectiveness of environmental marketing claims was the subject of an OECD workshop entitled Enhancing the Value and the Effectiveness of Environmental Claims: Protecting and Empowering Consumers, held in Paris on 15-16 April 2010. The event brought together over 160 representatives from government, business and civil society. Workshop conclusions will feed into the OECD Green Growth Strategy and the work of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.
The workshop underscored the value of better environmental information in supporting sustainable consumer behaviour. It highlighted the key role that consumer agencies can play in helping to ensure that consumers are adequately informed and that measures to combat misleading, confusing and false environmental claims are effective.
The event also highlighted the complexity of the information to be conveyed through green claims, the diversity of consumers as a group and the changing nature of consumers’ preferences and perceptions, which is also a challenge for consumer agencies. Conveying simple and truthful product information through reliable and comparable green claims was considered as essential for building and maintaining consumer confidence in value and validity of these claims. More specifically, it was noted that vague, general or overly complex claims could give rise to consumer skepticism. Given the time and expertise generally required to properly evaluate and compare environmentally relevant information, a green information overload could confuse consumers or discourage them from making decisions. Without trust in claims, firms’ efforts to become more environmentally responsible can be undermined.
The workshop stressed the value of assuring that claims are substantiated through readily available and easily comprehensible evidence as well as the monitoring of claims through reliable and transparent verification schemes. Independent, third-party monitoring was seen as important to strengthen consumer confidence.
Participants discussed the positive effects that the development of common terminology could have on claims and the benefits of consolidating and simplifying green claims schemes. The importance of international standards, such as those developed the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), was highlighted and more extensive use of existing standards was supported.
The critical role of international co-operation in promoting the value and effectiveness of claims was also discussed. This currently includes the work of Consumers International, the European Union, the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) and the ISO. Co-operation, it was noted, should be strengthened; one area which should be focused on would be the development of common minimum requirements for claims. This could help to improve voluntary compliance across borders, and facilitate enforcement of regulations and guidelines by consumer protection agencies.
To effectively tackle these issues, seven main areas were identified where consumer agencies can act to enhance the value of green claims. They can do so by:
- promoting consumer empowerment through consumer education;
- requiring that environmental claims be adequately substantiated;
- encouraging the monitoring and verification of claims, preferably by independent, multi-stakeholder parties;
- promoting the simplification of information, where possible through common international labelling schemes;
- encouraging development of clearer terminology and more extensive use of existing international standards (such as those of the International Standards Organization);
- ensuring strong and transparent compliance and enforcement;
- enhancing international co-operation to develop common approaches for environmental claims.
The workshop agenda included breakout sessions on:
- i) the situation in the automobile sector; and
- ii) green claims-related energy efficiency.
The session on automobile industry stressed the need to decrease vague environmentally friendly or green claims in the sector as well as the need for more effective action aimed at reducing misleading claims and increasing transparency.
In the session on energy efficiency, the value of ensuring that sales staff understand energy efficiency claims was emphasised, as was the importance of ensuring strong and transparent compliance, monitoring and enforcement. Finally, the important role that the private sector could play in environmental labelling governance was noted, as were the roles that voluntary and mandatory disclosure schemes could play.
In his summary, the Chairman of the OECD Committee on Consumer Policy discussed how the group will advance work on green claims. A report on the workshop will be prepared, containing conclusions and recommendations for discussion by the Committee at its November 2010 meeting. The report will then be fed into work on the OECD Green Growth Strategy and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The Committee will consider further work in 2011 and 2012, at which time a series of workshops will be organised as a follow up to the development of the Committee’s Consumer Policy Toolkit publication. The challenges being faced in environmental claims are seen as good material for a case study. This work could result in further recommendations.
Click here for further information about the workshop.