Europe intensifies battle against greenwashing

Green claims about products, services or companies have become mainstream in the global tea and coffee industries. The lion’s share of all products, including almost all new offers, are advertised as climate-neutral, carbon-neutral or sustainable. There is a simple fact behind this trend: in the modern world, managers know that green claims contribute to an increase in revenue.

Still, analysts express concerns that some companies try to present their products as more eco-friendly than they actually are. There is even a special term to describe such dishonest behaviour: greenwashing. It was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld originally to describe a widespread practice under which hotels were marketing their reusable towels as part of an environmental conservation effort while, in fact, this was only a cost-cutting solution.

Some recent marketing studies have shown that more than half of consumers in the Western world opt for products marked as environmental-friendly, sustainable or having a lower carbon footprint. Most importantly, consumers say they are ready to pay more for eco-friendly products. This trend is here to stay, and it’s already proved its resilience in the face of a pandemic, economic crises, and even wars.

Over the past few decades, green labelling was thought to be a silver bullet for combatting greenwashing, but currently, it is equally different for consumers and company executives to make sense of the existing environmental labels. The European Commission estimated that there are 200 environmental labels active in the EU and more than 450 worldwide. Furthermore, there are more than 80 widely used reporting initiatives and methods for carbon emissions only. Some are more reliable than others, but the system remains confusing for consumers and manufacturers.

Some countries have designed a comprehensive legal framework to battle greenwashing. For example, London-based law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP recently stated that greenwashing claims were rising in Germany over the past few years, adding that the law requires businesses to disclose more details about their products rather than using some cliché.

For instance, the lawyers explained that most courts found that advertising a product as ‘climate-neutral’ has an insufficiently clear meaning to consumers. In this background, businesses are best advised to be cautious about their climate-related advertising claims and should be prepared to prove the accuracy of such claims.

Some green solutions require no explanations. For example, Migros and its subsidiary Delica AG have recently introduced the first coffee capsule system without a capsule, known as Coffee Ball. The innovation is available throughout Switzerland and France and will be launched in Germany in spring 2023. The Coffee Ball is a small ball of pressed coffee covered only by a protective layer. Instead of aluminum in this system, an oxygen barrier is used to protect the coffee from the loss of aroma.

The environmental impact of such innovations is clear. The coffee pods – usually constructed from plastic or aluminum – take a mammoth 500 years to decompose. Millions of pods end up at landfills every year, despite efforts of the government to ramp up plastic recycling volumes.

Other market players are paying attention to this problem too. For example, Nespresso has created a paper-based home compostable capsule that will be piloted in Spring 2023. The company said that is uses biopolymer lining inside the capsule which protects the coffee against spoiling through oxidisation. Instant Brands has also introduced new compostable coffee pods and espresso capsules.

Fighting against greenwashing is crucial so that sound companies, truly investing in eco-friendly innovations and making a difference, could eventually benefit from their achievements.

In Europe, some positive development in this field might be in the pipeline. In March 2022, the European Commission published a proposal amending the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the Consumer Rights Directive, the main target of which was to enable consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions.

The proposal extended the list of unfair commercial practices to those associated with greenwashing and amended the list of product characteristics about which businesses must not deceive a consumer to include environmental or social impact, durability and reparability. This is considered a positive and timely development, but will unlikely end greenwashing, including in the European tea and coffee industry, completely.

  • Vladislav Vorotnikov is a Batumi, Georgia-based multimedia B2B freelance journalist writing about the tea and coffee industry since 2012.

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