"Zero carbon", "based on recycled materials", "reduced climate footprint"... In its legislative proposal expected at midday, which will then be negotiated by member states and MEPs, Brussels wants to stem the proliferation of formulas intended to catch the environmentally conscious consumer.

Out of 150 green claims (packaging, advertising) examined by the Commission in 2020, half (53%) contained "vague, misleading or unsubstantiated information": textiles, cosmetics, household appliances, etc. No sector was spared.

And the examination of 232 European "ecolabels" showed that half were granted with "weak or non-existent" verifications.

"Consumers lack reliable information, they are confronted with misleading commercial practices and the lack of transparency and credibility of environmental labels," the EU executive said in a draft of the text seen by AFP.

After having proposed in March 2022 to ban "generic and vague environmental claims" ("green product", "eco-responsible"...), Brussels wants to ban any claim that is not supported by factual and scientific evidence, accessible via QR code or website.

The draft urges States to "ensure that environmental claims concerning products and companies are justified on the basis of a methodology" based "on recognized scientific evidence", also identifying negative environmental impacts, and taking overall account of the "life cycle" (components, use, recycling, etc.).

Environmental certification schemes would be subject to the same criteria, with rules of transparency, independence and supervision.

States would be required to have the merits of companies' allegations checked by accredited "independent auditors" and, in the event of infringement, to impose "effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties".

"Free riders"

The new provisions would apply to products and services not covered by other European texts with a similar purpose, with "green" investments already regulated by a "taxonomy" unveiled at the end of 2021.

Labels providing information on the consumption of household appliances, in a shop in Brussels, March 3, 2016 © EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP/Archives

The aim is welcomed by NGOs: "The proliferation of +greenwashing+ prevents consumers from making informed choices, and makes it more difficult for companies working to reduce their environmental impact to distinguish themselves from free-riders," observes Blanca Morales of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

"Consumers do not trust environmental demands, which they do not understand", the Brussels proposal "may lead them to more sustainable purchasing methods", abounds Dimitri Vergne, of the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC).

However, while a reference method (PEF) already makes it possible to measure the "environmental footprint" of products, no single methodology would be imposed on companies that would have room for manoeuvre.

"We are concerned about excessive openness" because "we do not want each company to develop its own assessment in its own corner", comments Mr. Vergne, calling for "a robust governance framework involving civil society".

It also calls for preferential treatment of long-standing "highly reliable labels", such as the official EU-designed Ecolabel, the German "Blue Angel" or the Scandinavian "Nordic Swan".

"Smoke screen"

The NGOs are unanimous in wanting to completely ban any claim of "carbon neutrality".

The Director of the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC), Monique Goyens, at a press conference on 11 July 2012 in Brussels © GEORGES GOBET / AFP/Archives

In its draft, the Commission only plans to oblige companies claiming to be "zero carbon" to clearly detail whether they buy credits on the carbon market or plant trees to offset their own environmental impact.

"These claims mislead consumers by suggesting that products or services have no climate impact, a scientific impossibility," insists the EEB, fearing a "missed opportunity".

For BEUC, this is particularly true in the agri-food sector.

"There is no such thing as a CO2-neutral banana or water bottle, it's greenwashing pure and simple, a smokescreen (...) Planting trees that take decades to grow is much easier and cheaper, but much less effective than reducing emissions," says its director general Monique Goyens.

© 2023 AFP