After much delay – whether due to dilly dallying, intense lobbying efforts, or an all-encompassing serious study, no one knows – the Commission has finally published a proposal clarifying what companies can claim to be “green”. The proposal specifies what an environmental claim is and how such a claim must be substantiated, measured, and verified.

The proposal is part of the Circular Economy package within the European Green Deal, and its main objective is to protect consumers from greenwashing. It complements several other initiatives such as the proposal on ‘empowering consumers for the green transition‘ which intends to give consumers more and better information, and the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation proposal, which sets requirements for sustainable product design.

The Brussels bubble, as well as any company intending to make any claim to consumers, has been buzzing with anticipation. Several leaks have been circulating, and the pressure to respond to the fears and criticisms must have been intensely felt at the Directorate General for the Environment, which held the pen on the proposal.

Most companies and NGOs have seen or taken part in multi-stakeholder pilot projects organised, and funded by, the European Commission. These initiatives sought to define Product Environmental Footprints (PEF), and category rules (PEFCR) for a wide range of sectors. With all this effort invested, many expected the Green Claims proposal to bring uniform criteria for claims to all EU citizens.

We need to consider the life cycle, but we don’t have to

The proposal as it stands today does not mandate the use of life-cycle assessment (LCA) or PEF methods to substantiate claims. Immediate NGO reactions claim that the proposal was watered down. There is disappointment that there is no unified method or mandate for green claims, and that claims don’t have to consider the full life cycle of interlinking or contradicting impacts along a product’s supply chain.

So why not? A quick thought experiment shows how that might paralyse many industries and hold companies back from making the effort to improve in specific fields. Imagine your favourite cookie sold in your local supermarket. It probably has wheat and chocolate and butter and is wrapped in standard wrapping to keep its freshness. Maybe the chocolate is a small part of the product’s overall impact. But maybe the company making the cookie has found a nice supplier that has a significantly lower carbon impact than their previous supplier. Can they or can they not make a claim to show that their impact has improved, if only the highest life-cycle impact claims are allowed? Surely, incremental steps towards sustainability should be worthy of acknowledgement?

Of course, we would hope that the intrinsic motivation of doing something (i.e. choosing the right chocolate supplier) would be enough reward, but usually the ability to make a claim helps.

Why was so much energy put into the PEF?

The development of the PEF has been a long and bumpy road since their pilots started in 2013. Finding alignment on how to measure impacts in a particular sector was never going to be easy. The PEFCR working groups were mandated by the Commission but managed by independent stakeholders. Take the PEFCR on apparel and footwear as an example. Managed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the working group brought together stakeholders from across the supply chain and have agreed on a comprehensive framework to measure impact across 16 environmental indicators. It has been criticised for unjustly “rewarding” fibres made from plastic bottles, and for failing to account for microplastic pollution during the textile use phase and end of life.

Was the PEF process a waste of energy then? Probably not, as the category rules will continue to be refined. If we can find something that everyone can agree on, we may see requirements on explicit life cycle methodologies in the future. But not yet.

Emphasis on explicit

Interestingly, the proposal has shifted from being about “environmental claims” in general, including implicit claims, to being about “explicit environmental claims”, defined as those claims that are on labels or in text form. This could mean that claims such as products’ packages being green or showing lush forests would not be regulated by the text.

No dishonest offsetting

One of the major controversies in recent years has been company claims on carbon neutrality, without necessarily specifying whether or not they relied on offsets to get there. That could be, claiming that a product is “net zero” while having made no improvements to the process – only achieving the result through bought certificates showing evidence of trees planted somewhere. That is now going to be outlawed. Case law in many countries has set the precedent, now the EU27 might find themselves with collective teeth to call for carbon claims to be obviously within the same product life cycle, or at least honestly stating that they used offsets to make the claim.

What next?

Either way, the final details will impact all companies that communicate to consumers – and they all need to pay careful attention to the fine print, as each situation will be unique. Figuring out the finer details might bring turbulence to the final year of this Commission, as the Parliament and Council will be putting their stakes in the sand ahead of the negotiations of the three parties in trilogues to determine the final text. Expect Parliament to push for stricter rules for claims, and Council to push for more freedom, less costly responsibilities to verify and sniff out offenders, and less delegated acts that give the Commission power to design the details.

Either all three parties will agree on something that will make them all popular, for a quick pre-election “win”, or they will need to kick the can down the road into the next Commission period. And who knows what the ambition will be then!