eco friendly shoppers with sustainable reuseable bags

That the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) is tightening its grip on supermarkets over fears of increasing greenwashing claims by food and drink brands should come as no surprise.

The CMA has already targeted several of the big fast fashion retailers, and it now has its sights set on the growing number of household items  marketed as eco-friendly, including food and drink, cleaning products and toiletries.

There’s no doubt sustainability is shooting up consumers’ list of concerns. Research from Deloitte backs this up: its statistics suggest 40% of consumers have specifically chosen to purchaese from brands with sustainable practices or values, while 34% have actually stopped purchasing from certain brands due to ethical or sustainability-related concerns.

So it is not surprising brands and grocers are keen to respond and flaunt their green credentials.

The problem is, sustainability is complex. A packaging change or product reformulation may have a negative effect somewhere else in the supply chain.

For example, last year Morrisons decided to switch its own-brand fresh milk from plastic bottles to Tetra Pak cartons. This ignited a debate over whether this was a commendable decision to reduce plastic, or a greenwashing stunt that could actually lead to more waste.

At the time, Tetra Pak argued for the superior carbon impact of its cartons versus more conventional packaging. It pointed to a 2020 life cycle assessment that concluded Tetra Pak carton packages had a lower carbon footprint than glass, plastic or metal packages. Many others argued a switch away from an item that is 100% recyclable via kerbside collections to a multi-layer pack made of paper, plastic and aluminium – which is not recyclable in 20% of kerbside collections – was baffling and would lead to more waste.

Such nuanced considerations are outside the scope of the experience of most brand managers, so it’s no surprise eco claims may often be based on an incomplete understanding of the real-world effects. Many marketing teams simply don’t have the knowledge or expertise to ensure their green claims stand up to scrutiny.

Research by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) in 2021 revealed half of UK marketers are now wary of working on sustainability campaigns in case they are accused of greenwashing.

This is despite consumers demanding businesses be more active on the environment, and the growing recognition of sustainability as a business priority. In fact, 51% of companies surveyed by CIM went as far as saying climate change could threaten the very existence of their business or clients.

There’s no doubt marketers have their work cut out. The CIM research shows increasingly savvy consumers are sceptical of brands’ sustainability efforts, with 63% believing many brands only get involved for commercial, rather than ethical, reasons.

So how should brands and retailers respond?

The first and most obvious thing is to avoid making general claims such as “environmentally-friendly” or “eco”. Such claims are meaningless unless there is an accompanying explanation of what exactly the claim is based on. The CMA will expect specific details that consumers can use to compare products.

Secondly, work with sustainability specialists to understand the complexity. Critics will argue that large brands and grocery retailers have no shortage of experts to check their claims are correct and they are simply trying to mislead consumers, but I think this criticism is too simple. Whilst there is no doubt some brands are trying to gain competitive advantage, most senior marketers realise the potential damage to their brand from negative PR far outweighs the short-term benefit of a ‘green sales gain’.

What’s needed is for more brands and supermarkets to educate their marketing teams on the true complexity of sustainability. What’s good enough today won’t be good enough tomorrow.

They also need to ensure they avoid greenwashing claims by being transparent with the public, and recognising we are all on a journey towards a circular economy, where ideally waste is eliminated and simply becomes the feedstock for another process.

The industry will always face greenwashing criticism, but through improved education and transparency, brands and supermarkets can better communicate that they can be powerful agents for the change we all need.