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Greenwashing: misleading sustainability

Interview with Jochen Geilenkirchen, Policy Officer Sustainable Consumption, on greenwashing

From “CO2 compensated” to “climate positive”, products and services are constantly advertised as environmentally or climate friendly. Greenwashing describes the tendency to portray environmental features as more positive than they truly are. In this interview Jochen Geilenkirchen, Policy Officer Sustainable Consumption at vzbv, explains why greenwashing is problematic and why current legislation does not go far enough.

Jochen Geilenkirchen im vzbv

Credit: vzbv

Mr Geilenkirchen, what does greenwashing mean?

Jochen Geilenkirchen: Greenwashing can take many forms and refers to the way a product is manufactured, used, disposed of, or packaged. It becomes especially apparent when an environmental claim is patently false. For example, when bamboo cups are claimed to be biodegradable, although this is clearly not the case. A more subtle form of greenwashing involves highlighting a single positive aspect of an otherwise harmful product to make the product as a whole appear more environmentally friendly than it is. For instance, when fish from aquaculture is labelled as environmentally friendly because it prevents overfishing in the sea – while ignoring the fact that aquaculture often entails the destruction of mangrove forests, making the fish environmentally harmful in another way. Another frequent problem is self-evident green claims, such as “CFC-free”, even though the use of CFCs was banned many years ago.

And why is greenwashing problematic?

Greenwashing poses a problem for consumers. If they are looking to make sustainable purchases they have to rely on information the manufacturers provide. This information, however, cannot offer any orientation if it is unclear how reliable it is. Recently, vzbv commissioned an investigation which showed that consumers often incorrectly judge the reliability of green claims and food labels.

A consumer landscape in which almost all products are advertised as having green features makes it impossible for consumers to differentiate between sustainable and non-sustainable products. This harms not only consumers, but also the environment. If consumers cannot differentiate between the environmental characteristics of various products, they will maintain rather than change their purchasing behaviour.

Why is the claim of “climate neutrality” greenwashing?

Climate neutrality is an important climate policy goal in the global fight against human-made climate change. However, the term is also increasingly found in advertising claims: Consumers are offered “climate-neutral hair shampoo”, “climate-positive pasta” and even “CO2-neutral heating oil”.

vzbv considers claims about supposedly “climate-neutral” products, services, or companies highly problematic. Such claims exploit consumers’ lack of awareness about the link between “climate neutrality” via compensation paid for greenhouse gases and the questionable efficacy of such measures. They also create the impression that the products purchased have no negative impact on the climate. To date, that is an impossibility, which makes claims of “climate neutrality” a classic case of greenwashing.

Why does current legislation not go far enough?

Legislation to prevent many forms of greenwashing is already in place. The European Commission’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), for example, facilitates legal action against certain “misleading” claims.

However, a general problem with this kind of judicial review is that it only applies to advertising already on the market. In other words, the claims can be used freely until a plaintiff is found. Thus, it is not a strategy to completely prevent greenwashing. Furthermore, to date there are no standardised laws stating what evidence must be provided for green claims and under what conditions such claims can be made.

So what is to be done? What does vzbv recommend?

We call for legislation that covers the entire EU single market in order to completely prevent greenwashing. vzbv wishes to see a regulation that establishes scientific criteria for binding methods to substantiate green claims. Claims that cannot be substantiated, such as “climate neutral”, should be banned outright. Furthermore, it should be forbidden to make any positive claims about the environmental features of products that are generally harmful to the environment, for example those which contain dangerous or harmful substances.

Does vzbv itself take action against greenwashing?

Yes. In addition to its policy work, vzbv also takes legal action against misleading advertising. vzbv makes use of the existing legislation against such practices and also sends regular written warnings to companies that seek to make their products appear greener than they actually are.

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Press and Media Relations

presse@vzbv.de +49 30 25800-525


Portrait Jochen Geilenkirchen

Jochen Geilenkirchen

Policy Officer Sustainable Consumption

info@vzbv.de +49 30 25800-0


Isabelle Buschke

Isabelle Buscke

Head of Brussels Office

buero-bruessel@vzbv.de +32 278927-52