CALVIN SANDBORN and BRONWYN ROE
As demand for environmentally sound products increases, far too many corporations are taking advantage of well-intentioned consumers by “greenwashing” — making misleading claims about their products’ environmental virtues.
A global review led by consumer protection and enforcement agencies recently found that up to 40 per cent of marketing claims about “green,” “recyclable,” “sustainable,” “biodegradable” and “eco-friendly’ products appear to be misleading.
The tragic thing is that such deceptive ads actually undermine real-world efforts to reduce pollution, protect biodiversity and slow climate change.
Fortunately, Canada’s Competition Bureau has begun to take greenwashing seriously. In January, the Bureau took action against Keurig Canada. The Bureau found that Keurig ads, which boasted that its single-use K-cup coffee pods were generally and easily recycled, were misleading because:
• most Canadian recycling programs do not accept the pods, and
• programs that do accept pods require far more pod-cleaning than advertised.
The Bureau’s inquiry into Keurig was sparked by a request for investigation filed by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre and Ecojustice. As our complaint to the bureau demonstrated, the ads were causing substantial environmental harm by encouraging consumers to throw pods contaminated with grounds and tin foil into blue boxes.
Despite claims made by Keurig Canada, coffee pods are in fact barred from most recycling systems precisely because coffee grounds and tin foil contaminate the plastic recycling stream. A 2018 City of Toronto report addressed the serious contamination issue being created by tons of coffee pods — and noted companies’ deceptive advertising “is misleading to residents, results in confusion, and ultimately is increasing the cost of waste management in the City because coffee pods are mistakenly placed in both the Blue Bin and Green Bin.”
The city complained vehemently about Keurig’s advertising, but to little avail. Ironically, it would have been better for the environment — and the city budget — if consumers had simply ignored the ads and thrown the pods into the garbage.
Our complaint led to a Competition Tribunal Consent Agreement that:
• required Keurig to promptly correct the recyclability claims on K-Cup packages and ads;
• fined Keurig $3 million dollars;
• required Keurig to donate $800,000 to an environmental group; and
• ordered Keurig to publish prominent “corrective” ads across Canada, to rectify the original misleading recycling claims.
Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident. Citing the ubiquity of misleading environmental ads, the Competition Bureau recently issued a statement calling on consumers to keep a lookout for greenwashing — and to report false and misleading environmental claims to the bureau. Consumers who see questionable advertising are urged to contact the companies and ask what evidence backs up such things as green-tinted packaging; cute images of nature; descriptions such as “safe for the environment” and “eco-friendly”; and eco-labels and logos?
We applaud the Competition Bureau’s new greenwashing initiatives, and encourage the public to respond. Meanwhile, we await results from the bureau’s ongoing inquiries into potential greenwashing, including its investigation into a complaint brought by Ecojustice and Friends of the Earth against companies that claim their single-use wipes are “flushable.” The complaint provided evidence that flushing such wipes blocks pipes, harms municipal sewage infrastructure and introduces harmful microfibres and microplastics into waterways.
The simple fact is, consumer choice can be a powerful force for achieving sustainability. Most consumers want to make good environmental choices. Since dollars drive behaviours in a free market, green purchases can strengthen green manufacturers, drive polluters out of business and reduce environmental harms.
However, misleading ads cause market failure. They make it all but impossible for consumers to distinguish between beneficial and harmful products. Consumers may choose a slickly advertised harmful product — like a single-use plastic coffee pod that is advertised as recyclable — instead of a truly green product — like a reusable coffee filter.
Greenwashing must of course be curbed in order to preserve the legal principle of truth in advertising. However, it may be even more important to curb greenwashing in order to protect the environment.
The bottom line is this: we will never achieve sustainability if corporations can actively deceive consumers about which products are sustainable. Consumers have the right to the unvarnished truth about products so that they can make smart purchasing decisions to protect the planet and safeguard their children’s future.
Calvin Sandborn is senior counsel at the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre and Bronwyn Roe is a staff lawyer at Ecojustice Toronto. They filed the legal application that led to Competition Bureau action on Keurig’s K-Cup advertising.