An internet sweep by a group of consumer agencies throughout the world, including Western Australia’s Consumer Protection office, has uncovered potentially misleading environmental claims by an alarming number of online businesses.
The annual global sweep, conducted by members of the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN), found that 40 percent of websites scrutinised were making environmental claims or using eco-friendly brand names or language that wasn’t supported by hard evidence.
The results from the sweep, which was carried out from 9-27 November last year, have now been analysed. Coordinated this year by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, a total of 1,095 websites were randomly selected and investigated, with a focus on detection of misleading environmental claims.
Various other Australian agencies involved
Other Australian agencies involved were the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Office of Fair Trading Queensland and NSW Fair Trading.
Within Australia, a total of 74 businesses trading online were targeted. Concerns were raised over the claims made by more than a third of them.
Among the concerns identified by the researchers were the use of vague claims and unclear language. These included using terms such as ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’, or referring to ‘natural products’ without adequate explanation or evidence to substantiate these claims.
Many businesses using self-created eco-logos
A number of businesses used what appeared to be self-created brand eco-logos and eco-labels not associated with an accredited environmental organisation.
There is also evidence to suggest that businesses are hiding or omitting certain information, such as a product’s pollution levels, in order to appear more eco-friendly to consumers.
WA’s Commissioner for Consumer Protection, Lanie Chopping, said the international sweep looked at websites promoting products and services across a range of sectors, including clothes, cosmetics and food.
“Finding four in 10 websites with potentially misleading environmental claims is quite alarming and goes to show that, without clear evidence being provided, consumers should be dubious of eco-friendly statements being made by online traders,” Chopping observed.
False claims take clients from legitimate brands
“Companies that make false or misleading claims are effectively stealing customers from traders who are offering products with a genuine environmental benefit. Consumers should be able to easily choose between those traders that are doing the right thing for the environment and those who are not.”
She urged consumers to look past the logo, slogans and packaging which may contain images of nature, fruit or farms and instead read the ingredients on the label.
Consumers should ask businesses to provide evidence of their green practices and claims – such as independent assessments of the eco-friendly nature of the products and/or ingredients used. People should also ask for proof of any claimed accreditations, affiliations or endorsements from environmental organisations.