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EU shows commitment to combatting greenwashing

A recent statement from the European Commission on retailer “greenwashing” claims underscores a collective commitment to combatting greenwashing and safeguarding consumers from misleading sustainability claims, an expert has said.

In what is being considered a significant move towards transparency, German online retailer Zalando has committed to removing misleading sustainability claims from its website. It follows intervention from the European consumer authorities, including the Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM).

The authorities challenged Zalando over its use of vague sustainability claims, such as the term “sustainability” and visual symbols like leaves, which were used to indicate the apparent eco-friendliness of its products. During its investigation into sustainability claims in the clothing industry, the ACM requested enforcement action against Zalando from the German consumer authority, with the ACM’s findings considered instrumental in this coordinated action.

Zalando made several commitments in response to this intervention including removing sustainability flags from their website, discontinuing the use of misleading visual claims, and refraining from using the term “sustainability” among other unjustified terms that suggested sustainability benefits. These claims will be removed by Zalando starting from 15 April 2024. Instead, the retailer will provide clear and specific information about the sustainability benefits of products on the product pages themselves, making sustainability claims only when those individual products offer significant sustainability benefits.

The findings come amid wider concerns of greenwashing across the retail industry. A Commission study (156-page / 7.2MB PDF) from 2020 highlighted that 53.3% of examined environmental claims in the EU were found to be vague, misleading or unfounded, and 40% were unsubstantiated.

EU authorities and lawmakers are currently busy addressing greenwashing concerns with aims of protecting consumers from misleading information. The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (21 pages / 312 KB) already provides for general prohibition of misleading commercial practices, such as misleading sustainability claims, with the Commission’s statement about Zalando referring to this directive.

However, new and more specific legislation regarding greenwashing and sustainability claims is in progress. On 22 March 2023 the commission proposed the “Green Claims Directive” which is currently being discussed at committee stage in parliament. Additionally, on 17 January 2023, the members of the European parliament adopted a new directive that seeks to protect consumers from misleading marketing practices. This regulation is set to work together with the Green Claims Directive.

Technology law expert Michelle Seel of Pinsent Masons said: “Considering recent legal developments concerning sustainability claims and greenwashing, it is noticeable that the European lawmakers aim to enhance the consumer protection within this field. Recently, numerous multinational companies have been slapped on the wrists by European or national authorities for their misleading ‘green’ claims and the EU is introducing legal initiatives such as the Green Claim Directive.”

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