Consumer interest in more responsible consumption continues to grow: almost 3 out of 4 French people acknowledge the need to adapt their day-to-day practices to reduce the impact of their consumption ( GreenFlex/ADEME, Baromètre de la consommation responsable, octobre 2022). In such a context, the fight against greenwashing becomes a fundamental task to support the transformation of consumption patterns and guarantee consumer confidence. Consequently, an increasing number of brands now highlight the sustainability, environmental respect, and natural properties of their products. However, how do we know that brands are not exaggerating these qualities, thus misleading consumers?
At the end of May 2023, the DGCCRF (Direction génerale de la concurrence, de la consummation et de la répression des fraudes) published the findings of its largest investigation to date into non-food environmental claims. The investigation reviewed a total of 1,100 communication channels – ranging from packaging to web pages or social networks, which revealed that around 25% of the total number of businesses checked displayed anomalies.
These irregularities corresponded to the promotion of claims that were global (i.e. vague), unjustified, imprecise, ambiguous, or even contrary to legal provisions. Additionally, many claims were likely to mislead the consumer or were even contrary to the specific regulations for certain products. Some examples of these identified fraudulent claims are:
- Globalized qualities: “environmentally-friendly” or “eco-responsible” are conflicting claims that refer to a general benefit, not a specific environmental impact. These types of claims can mislead consumers if professionals fail to substantiate such claims adequately.
- Unjustified claims: some of the irregularities found were the use of positive claims without justification, including references like the local origin of a product or the contribution to a particular cause (e.g. donation of part of the cost of the product to an NGO).
How to determine that a claim is reliable?
A “claim” is synonymous to a company statement issued about the qualities of its product, and more broadly, about the advantages and benefits they are supposed to offer. This claim is usually visible on the packaging, on the label, or in product advertising.
To determine if such a claim is reliable (i.e. it is not misleading), it is necessary to verify that the information provided is clear, unambiguous, and justified based on scientific evidence. Private and voluntary standards, such as NATRUE’s, may provide a basis for the support and assurance of the veracity of such claims. Moreover, NATRUE ensures transparency by employing independent third-party certifications to verify companies’ compliance with their promoted claims.
The fight against greenwashing becomes a fundamental task to support the transformation of consumption patterns and guarantee consumer confidence
Guidance is needed
Equipping consumers with the necessary tools is imperative to be able to make purchases and acquire products in an informed manner. Therefore, guaranteeing consumer confidence is a fundamental task. In fact, data indicates that it requires attention, since almost 3 out of 4 French people express the need for better information regarding the environmental and social impact of the product(s) they buy (Le guide de la communication responsable, ADEME, 2022).
In order to address this concern, also in May, an update of the National Consumption Council’s (CNC) Practical Guide to Environmental Claims was finally released. While primarily intended for consumers, the new version of the Guide acts as a reference tool for professionals and the regulatory authorities as it offers the latest developments in the legal framework, and presents the different claims that can be used for consumers to obtain accurate, reliable, and relevant information. That said, it is necessary to consider that this guide does not have a normative value, but rather constitutes a reference document that describes the state of the law and provides recommendations.
Like previous editions, the Guide incorporates recommendations from the CNC regarding the voluntary use of environmental claims and outlines the conditions for utilising common ly used terms like “organic,” “sustainable,” “natural,” and “free from”. For example:
- if the finished cosmetic product is certified organic, or 100% of ingredients/raw materials are certified organic, the claim “organic” can apply to the entire product. If, on the other hand, the overall level of organic ingredients/raw materials is less than 100%, it must be indicated. Otherwise, the “organic” claim should only apply to the specific ingredient(s) to avoid misleading consumers.
- if the product is described as “natural” it must contain at least 95% natural components. If the finished product contains less than 95% natural ingredients, only those ingredients can be claimed as natural.
Other environmental labelling requirements in France
Have you heard about the French ‘Anti-Waste Law’? Following the European Strategy for Sustainability, France wanted to promote an initiative on the issue of packaging; in particular, concerning the limitation of the use of plastics and better consumer information. As a result, on 1st January 2022, the AGEC Law (Anti-waste law for a circular economy) entered into force in France with about 50 measures aiming to reduce waste and promote safer practices and more honest communication with consumers.
Among other provisions, the legislation includes the following points:
- There is an obligation to affix the Triman logo to improve waste collection and sorting. The logo must be visible, since the symbol aims to inform the consumer that the product must be recycled appropriately. This legal obligation also applies to products sold online to France.
- Prohibition of the use of the terms “biodegradable”, “environmentally friendly” or any other equivalent term.
- The AGEC Law obliges companies to provide consumers with information on the environmental characteristics and qualities of the products. According to article 13, manufacturers and importers will inform consumers about aspects such as recyclability, the percentage of recycled material, the use of renewable resources, and hazardous substances’ presence in accordance with EU law. This information must be “viewable or accessible to the consumer at the time of purchase.”
Further objectives of the AGEC Act include:
- Increased share of reused packaging, with targets of 5% reused packaging by 2023 and 10% by 2027.
- 100% of plastics recycled by 2025.
- A ban on the use of plastic microbeads in all rinsed cosmetics by 2026 and non-rinsed cosmetics by 2027.
Equipping consumers with the necessary tools is imperative to be able to make purchases and acquire products in an informed manner
Digital labelling: A potential solution to get more information
Consumers are looking to make more sustainable choices, as well as gaining greater transparency about the substances used in products, their origin, sourcing, manufacturer and social and environment impact. Current regulatory requirements require that on-pack information is mandatory for elements such as ingredients labelling and aspects to help orientate and protect consumers. However, NATRUE questioned whether e-labelling can help to expand a consumer’s awareness and further promote transparency about the product, its ingredients, and its packaging. To this end, the targeted revision of the EU Cosmetics Regulation is expected to include reference to digital labelling.
To investigate this subject, NATRUE commissioned a study in 2022 in order to investigate digital labelling of natural and organic cosmetic products. Specifically, the survey aimed to gauge consumers’ perception, expectation, and trust regarding digital tools when it comes to product information, claims and labelling. According to the results of the study, 57% of shoppers in France would like to see more information on-pack but with additional information available online or in an app. Moreover, French consumers revealed a clear need for more information regarding the sourcing of ingredients and environmental impacts.
The study concluded that consumers want products with less clutter; i.e. less information on the pack. This presents an opportunity to provide information through digitized formats, such as a user-friendly app accessible via a QR-Code scanner, allowing for more readable packaging with larger fonts.
Author: Paula Gómez de Tejada, NATRUE Communications Officer
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Article Originally Published in NATEXPO 2023 Bio Eco Actual Special Edition