Calvin Sandborn and Bronwyn Roe: Truth in Advertising Can Help Save the Planet

Opinion: Up to 40% of marketing claims about ‘green’, ‘recyclable’, ‘sustainable’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ products appear to be misleading. Such “greenwashing” makes it virtually impossible for consumers to distinguish between beneficial and harmful products.

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As the demand for environmentally friendly products increases, far too many companies are taking advantage of well-meaning consumers by “greenwashing”, i.e. making misleading claims about the environmental virtues of their products.

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A global study by consumer protection and law enforcement agencies recently revealed that up to 40% of marketing claims about “green”, “recyclable”, “sustainable”, “biodegradable” and ” environmentally friendly” sound misleading.

What is tragic is that such misleading advertisements actually undermine real-world efforts to reduce pollution, protect biodiversity and slow climate change.

Fortunately, Canada’s Competition Bureau has begun to take greenwashing seriously. In January, the bureau took action against Keurig Canada. The bureau found that Keurig’s advertisements, which boasted that its single-serve K-cup coffee pods were commonly and easily recycled, were misleading because:

• most Canadian recycling programs do not accept capsules; and

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• Programs that accept pods require much more pod cleaning than advertised.

The bureau’s probe into Keurig was prompted by a request for an inquiry filed by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Center and Ecojustice. As our complaint demonstrated, the advertisements caused significant environmental damage by encouraging consumers to discard the pods contaminated with coffee grounds and foil in blue cans.

Despite Keurig Canada’s claims, coffee pods are actually excluded from most recycling systems precisely because coffee grounds and aluminum foil contaminate the plastic recycling stream. A 2018 City of Toronto report addressed the serious contamination problem created by tons of coffee pods – and noted that the companies’ misleading advertising “is misleading to residents, confusing and ultimately account, increases the cost of waste management in the city because the coffee pods are mistakenly placed in the blue bin and the green bin.

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The city complained vehemently about Keurig’s advertising, but to no avail. Ironically, it would have been better for the environment — and the city budget — if consumers had simply ignored the ads and thrown the pods in the trash.

Our complaint led to a consent from the Competition Tribunal which:

• demanded that Keurig promptly correct recyclability claims on K-Cup packaging and advertising;

• fined Keurig $3 million;

• demanded that Keurig donate $800,000 to an environmental group; and

• Ordered Keurig to prominently display “corrective” advertisements across Canada to rectify the original misleading recycling claims.

Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident. Citing the pervasiveness of misleading environmental advertising, the Competition Bureau recently issued a statement calling on consumers to monitor greenwashing and report false and misleading environmental claims to the bureau. Consumers who see questionable advertisements are urged to contact the companies and ask what evidence supports items such as green-tinted packaging; cute pictures of nature; descriptions such as “environmentally safe” and “environmentally friendly”; and eco-labels and logos?

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We welcome the Competition Bureau’s new greenwashing initiatives and encourage the public to respond. We look forward to the results of the bureau’s future investigations into potential greenwashing.

The simple fact is that consumer choice can be a powerful force in achieving sustainability. Most consumers want to make good environmental choices. Since dollars drive behavior in a free market, green purchasing can empower green manufacturers, drive polluters out of their operations, and reduce environmental damage.

However, misleading advertisements cause market failure. They make it virtually impossible for consumers to distinguish between beneficial and harmful products. Consumers may choose a cleverly advertised harmful product – like a single-use plastic coffee pod that is advertised as recyclable – instead of a truly green product – like a reusable coffee filter.

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Greenwashing must of course be curbed in order to preserve the legal principle of truth in advertising. However, it may be even more important to curb greenwashing in order to protect the environment.

The bottom line is this: we will never achieve sustainability if companies can actively mislead consumers about which products are sustainable. Consumers are entitled to the unvarnished truth about products, so they can make smart buying decisions to protect the planet and safeguard their children’s future.

Calvin Sandborn is senior counsel at the Environmental Law Center at the University of Victoria; Bronwyn Roe is a staff lawyer at Ecojustice Toronto. They filed the legal claim that led to a Competition Bureau action regarding Keurig’s K-Cup ad.

Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected] The editor of the editorial pages is Hardip Johal, who can be contacted at [email protected]

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