The UN Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information provides a definition for greenwashing. However, the current EU Cosmetics Regulation does not provide a means to unambiguously identify when a natural or organic cosmetic product claim risks the consumer is being misleading – meaning that natural and organic cosmetics remain at risk from greenwashing.

An end to greenwashing

In the pursuit of climate neutrality, the green transition’s drive towards a more sustainable, circular economy also requires changing consumption behaviours. Indeed, in 2019 the EU Commission (EC) stated that “reliable, comparable and verifiable information also plays an important part in enabling buyers to make more sustainable decisions and reduces the risk of greenwashing.” The consequences of lack of appropriate information include loss of consumer welfare, negative environmental impacts through misinformed choices, and harm to single market by affecting faircompetition across the Union.

To tackle this need to empower and protect consumers by providing more reliable and relevant claims, allowing for a more harmonised approach to environmental information, and unlocking the opportunities of the green and circular economy, the EC opted for a complimentary, two-fold approach:

  1. to add a new Directive on Green Claims to reduce the proliferation of inconsistent methods and initiatives leading to too many misleading environmental claims;
  2. to amend Directives 2005/29/EC, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UPCD), and 2011/83/EU (consumer rights) to act as a strong safety net for those claims not covered by the Green Claims Directive.

Since both (1) and (2) are Directives, the legislative act sets out a goal that all EU countries must achieve, but individual EU Member States can still devise their own laws on how to reach these goals. Consequently, the approaches are not as harmonised as a Regulation, which must be applied in its entirety across the EU.

In the pursuit of climate neutrality, the green transition’s drive towards a more sustainable, circular economy also requires changing consumption behaviours

For cosmetics, the relationship between the sectoral Cosmetics Regulation (EU CPR) and the horizontal UCPD is that both aim to protect consumers from misleading claims, with the UCPD applying in a complimentary manner to cosmetic claims. For cosmetic product claims the provisions of the EU CPR prevail due to specific rules (lex specialis) over the UCPD; so specific aspects of unfair commercial practices are regulated by the EU CPR. This is due to the existence of Regulation (EC) No.655/2013 and the accompanying technical guidance document, which offers a sector-specific framework for assessing cosmetic claims within the scope of the Article 20 (product claims) of the EU CPR . However, there is still no precise guidance or regulatory definition under Article 20 for environmental claims – including natural and organic claims.

An end to greenwashing

In March 2022, the EC adopted their proposal to amend Directives 2005/29/EC and 2011/83/EU. In the context of greenwashing, the proposition laid out a ‘black list’ of commercial practices to:

  • ensure that traders do not mislead consumers about environmental and social impacts;
  • ban making vague/generic claims where environmental excellence cannot be demonstrated (‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘biobased,’ etc.);
  • ban making environmental claims about the entire product when they only concern parts of the product;
  • ban sustainability labels which are not a sustainability label based on: a (voluntary) third-party verification scheme (or) established by public authorities;

In March 2023 the IMCO Committee report was adopted, which is now tabled for plenary, 1st reading. A number of amendments from report reinforce third-party certification as a means to substantiate claims, as well as a means to support innovation and sustainable practices as a key role in the green transition.

If adopted, EU Member States will have to transpose the rules into their national laws 18-months after adoption

In March 2023, the EC adopted its proposal for the Green Claims Directive– which is also undergoing the co-decision process for approval. The new Green Claims Directive proposal provides more specific rules whilst complementing the proposed changes to the UPCD, which broadly cover the following key aspects:

  • application to explicit environmental claims (in textual form or in an environmental label);
  • companies must substantiate environmental claims;
  • comparative and future claims require extra substantiation;
  • companies would be required to give consumers full background information;
  • companies would only be allowed to use approved environmental labels;
  • companies would have to obtain a prior certification from a national verifier;
  • non-compliant companies would face significant penalties;
  • EU Member States would be in charge of setting up verification and enforcement processes, to be performed by independent and accredited bodies.

If adopted, EU Member States will have to transpose the rules into their national laws 18-months after adoption (its date of entry into force). For the amendment of UCPD and Consumer Rights, Member States would have additional 6-months to start with its application, whereas application of any national measures for the Green Claims Directive would be 24-months after the date of entry into force. However, the timeline may be altered due to the European Parliament elections in the second quarter of 2024.

Since 2020, NATRUE has contributed to these two legislative proposals, and continues to work with its members and external stakeholders to support natural and organic cosmetics and combat greenwashing.

Author: Mark Smith, Director of NATRUE

Subscribe to Bio Eco Actual Newsletter and be up to date with the latest news from the Organic Sector

Bio Eco Actual, International Organic Newspaper
Read Bio Eco Actual