Climate change is, pardon the pun, the hot topic of our time. This summer was Europe’s hottest on record, with temperatures in parts of Europe regularly exceeding 40 degrees Celsius. Ireland experienced its hottest-ever June, immediately followed by its wettest July on record, with the country experiencing 215% of expected rainfall.

The realities of climate change are hitting home and people are, by and large, taking note. Research indicates that people are becoming more environmentally conscious. According to the European Investment Bank, 70% of Irish people aged 20-29 say that the climate impact of prospective employers is an important factor when job hunting, with 17% saying that it is a top priority.

Similarly, a recent study by Deloitte found that nearly half (49%) of consumers in Ireland changed their personal behaviour to take positive climate action and 64% of consumers reported purchasing sustainable products sometimes or often. These figures are, undoubtedly, positive. They reflect an increasing desire amongst the population to do right by the environment.

However, an important question arises. While 64% of consumers report purchasing sustainable products sometimes or often, do consumers really know what is or, more importantly, what is not a sustainable product?

The past decade has seen an explosion in ‘green marketing’. In the aftermath of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, many companies launched new environmental goals and strategies. These new environmental plans were accompanied by a flurry of marketing as companies attempted to communicate their green credentials to consumers. Since then, many other businesses have recognised that sustainability sells and have also adopted the new frontier of product marketing.

It is now the norm to see products make some claim as to their green credentials on their labelling or packaging. Whether it is t-shirts claiming to be made from recycled cotton, firelighters claiming to be ‘eco-friendly’, chocolate that claims to be made with sustainable palm oil, or banks that offer debit cards made from recycled plastic, the variety of green claims made by products nowadays are almost endless.

However, the rise in green marketing has brought with it a rise in a more unfortunate marketing practice – greenwashing. Greenwashing refers to the practice of making a product or activity appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it actually is. Greenwashing can manifest itself in a number of ways, some of which are more subtle than others. Perhaps the most common manifestation is the use of intentionally misleading labels such as “green” or “eco-friendly”, which do not have standard definitions and can be easily misinterpreted.

The term ‘organic’ which is seen on countless products has been particularly controversial. Research from MIT suggests that while organic practices can reduce the climate pollution produced by farming, claims often ignore the fact that such practices have lower yields, meaning more land is used to produce the same amount of food. As a result, organic farming may produce more climate pollution than conventional practices.

The average consumer is, unsurprisingly, unaware of the many caveats which must be attached to companies’ environmental claims. In truth, how could they be? Consumers are simply unable to prove whether or not a product which claims to be ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘eco-friendly’ actually is; a fact that greenwashing relies on. A European Commission study conducted in 2020 found that a considerable share of environmental claims (53.3%) provide vague, misleading or unfounded information about products’ environmental characteristics.

As part of the European Green Deal, a package of policy initiatives which aim to set the EU on the path to a green transition, the European Commission committed to ensuring that consumers are empowered to make better-informed choices. This will be achieved by banning ‘greenwashing’ and improving the information available to consumers.

Under the proposed directive, companies will be required to substantiate with scientific evidence any environmental claims they make about their products or business. It also aims to ban claims based on emissions offsetting schemes that suggest a product has a neutral, reduced or positive impact on the environment.

While the proposed directive is still in its infancy, it is encouraging to see the EU take steps to combat the increasing prevalence of greenwashing. If successfully implemented and enforced, the directive could contribute to a more sustainable and transparent marketplace, fostering a genuine transition towards a greener economy.

Mark O’Rourke – Features Editor