I work in an office and, like most offices we do a lot of printing. Does that make us environmentally unfriendly? What if we had a policy of printing only when absolutely necessary, two pages per sheet and double-sided? Would we then be entitled to claim we are sustainable? Or would we have to be entirely paperless?
The reliability of environment claims made by businesses is difficult to assess, precisely because a universal easy-to-apply standard is unworkable. Some will consider a hybrid car is eco-friendly, others that it is just less damaging to the environment.
So, when is it ok to say you are green?
Marketing a product or a service is very often about conveying an immediate impression to customers. When you're in the supermarket, for example you're often in a hurry and some companies will take advantage of that. With a logo, a tagline or a picture, companies want you to think that the product or service you are about to buy is "green", "recycled", "safe", "carbon neutral", "sustainable" etc. Green marketing is on the rise and so is greenwashing - making misleading or deceptive environmental claims. They're not always flat-out lies, but can often be gross exaggeration.
Greenwashing is an offence under the Fair Trading Act and can attract fines of $60,000 per offence for an individual or $200,000 per offence for a company.
The Commerce Commission, who enforce the Act, issued "Guidelines for Green Marketing" in December 2008 and "Guidelines for Carbon Claims in July 2009", both aimed at educating businesses and helping them better understand their obligations under the Fair Trading Act.
The guidelines state: "Businesses making environmental claims should ensure that their claims are scientifically sound and appropriately substantiated because customers are entitled to rely on them and expect these claims to be truthful and not misleading".
The Commission gives examples of bogus environmental claims that we all feel we have seen before, such as: "50 per cent more recycled content", when the content was only one per cent recycled in the first place; "CFC-free aerosol product", when the use of CFC is prohibited by law anyway.
Consumers should be aware of their rights and their ability to lodge complaints with the Commerce Commission as they can play an important role in the regulation and policing of green claims. . The Commission is currently investigating six cases and two more are before the courts. Consumers can also lodge complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority, which is in the process of updating its 1994 Code for Environmental Claims.
Making it easier to verify green claims will, ideally make businesses think hard before they risk their reputation with misleading claims, and encourage them to devote resources to environmentally sound practices over advertising their "greenness".
Third-party independent and impartial certification organisations are highly sought after and have become major partners to lots of businesses willing to achieve an environmentally sustainable business model. These are especially valuable for professional service providers. The sustainability of a real estate agent, graphic designer or law firm cannot be assessed by looking at a label on an end-product but rather depends on how the core business is conducted.
Unfortunately for consumers, there is a plethora of certificates and accreditations available in the market place and no centralised authority or website advising which ones can be trusted. At the same time, not having an accreditation or a certification does not mean the green claims on a product or service are not genuine.
A number of proactive New Zealand businesses have set up not-for-profit societies to promote sustainability: the Sustainable Business Council and the Sustainable Business Network (SBN). Rather than directly informing the public on who is sustainable and who is not, they focus on how a business can become green or greener. These two societies advise businesses that have already made a commitment towards sustainability. They can help a business buy more efficiently, reduce waste, be more energy efficient and organise forums. The Sustainable Business Network hosts an ever-growing annual awards ceremony to salute best-practice sustainability in the workplace.
Sébastien Aymeric is is a solicitor at James & Wells and member of their litigation team in Auckland. His international experience includes an in-house role as a legal/commercial manager in the Telecom Industry in Paris.