The need for credible references for sustainability claims was an issue that kept coming back in many of the presentations held at the recent 6th European Bioplastics conference in Berlin - if only, as one of the speakers pointed out, because the sheer cost of bioplastics makes this crucial.
Truthful and relevant environmental claims can facilitate informed decision-making by consumers, encourage the development of 'green' goods and services and protect honest claimants from unfair competition, says the European Commission. Nonetheless, greenwashing remains a 'sin' committed by some 98% of the green products in the market. In other words, 98% of the products making environmental claims of some kind are being promoted on the basis of information that, intentionally or otherwise, is misleading, downright false, unsubstantiated, vague or irrelevant. A product claiming to be 'pure', 'natural' or 'organic' without any additional, verifiable information being provided is a good example of just how insidious this practice is. Such claims are meaningless when not backed up by publicly available facts.
The lack of transparency in this regard has already in the past led to confusion about the advantages which the use of bio-based materials can offer. This year's winner of the annual Bioplastics Award, French food giant Danone (Dannon), for example, found out the hard way just how counter-effective it can be to communicate a message in vague generalities. When the company introduced its new Ingeo PLA Activia yoghurt packaging in Germany, calling the new tub 'environmentally friendly' with no further specification of why this should be the case, it met with harsh criticism from the German environmental group DUH. Claiming that the new PLA tub could not be recycled and that it was manufactured in part from genetically modified corn, and thus that Danone had 'systematically misinformed its customers about the alleged environmental benefits of the Activia container', DUH took the company to court. Danone has since agreed to change the label, while at the same time steadfastly denying any wrongdoing. The company has furthermore stated that it will continue to pursue sustainable options for its packaging, seeking in the future to use PLA made from agricultural byproducts and to investigate the possibilities of establishing a closed-loop PLA recycling system.
Slapping a 'green' label on a package is not enough
How can companies avoid getting into such messes? Specific information and transparency are essential when communicating 'green' messages. Provide evidence for the claims that are made. European Bioplastics intends to compile a practical guide on how to communicate relevant environmental claims to the market. Simply slapping on a "green" label is not enough. Assessment tools and certification procedures must be put in place in order to substantiate advertising and other claims. Land-use impact studies, LCAs, greenhouse gas emission studies, to name but a few, are an absolute necessity to realize the full potential of bioplastics in future applications across the board.
It's time to stamp out the 'sin' of greenwashing—starting right now.