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European consumer group files greenwashing complaint over water bottle recyclability

Published on 11 December 2023

The question

Will a consumer group complaint about recyclability and the use of green imagery on water bottle packaging be successful in proving a breach of EU regulations against greenwashing? And what will this mean for wider industry using recyclable or recycled packaging?

The key takeaway

The Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), the European consumer organisation, has filed a complaint to European authorities against a number of drinking water bottle traders about claims of their products recyclability. The BEUC has stated that such claims do not comply with the EU rules on unfair commercial practices”.

The background

The vast majority of consumer-facing advertising, sales and marketing legislation within the EU currently falls under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (2005/29/EC) (UPCD). December 2021 saw updates made to its detailed guidance. Key changes included, among others, guidance on:

  • the need for relative statements
  • avoiding distorting claims
  • the meaning of labelling schemes, certificates and logos.

In further efforts to combat greenwashing, in September 2023, the Green Transition Directive was provisionally agreed. This will ban practices such as making a generic environmental claim if it cannot be demonstrated in accordance with the requirements set out in Regulation (EC) 66/2010 (EU Ecolabel), officially recognised eco-labelling schemes in the Member States, or other applicable Union laws”.

These amendments form part of the EUs drive to tackle misleading environmental claims, an issue identified in the EUs 2019 Green Deal. In March 2023, the Commission put forward a Green Claims Directive, which would impose new regulations businesses seeking to substantiate and communicate explicit environmental claims.

The development

The BEUC has raised a complaint with the EU Commission about green claims made by major water bottle traders. The complaint follows a report carried out by BEUC together with non-profit ClientEarth and NGO ECOS - Environmental Coalition on Standards. The consumer group contends that the recyclability claims are misleading consumers. The BEUC stated: The beverage industry resorts to recyclability claims that according to our research are too vague, inaccurate or/and insufficiently substantiated.

Their complaint focuses on three key green claims:

  • 100% recyclable depends on many factors outside of the manufacturers control, including the available infrastructure, the sorting process and the recycling process
  • 100% recycled suggests that the bottle in its entirety is made from recycled materials, when bottle lids cannot be made of recycled materials by EU law and some brands also add non-recycled plastic to the body
  • use of green imagery, such as closed loops, green logos or nature images, promotes the idea that the products have environmental neutrality or even a positive impact on the environment.

The group is therefore calling for an investigation into these claims by the European Commission and the network of consumer protection authorities.

Why is this important?

Consumer groups are calling on authorities to take action, using existing regulations to target potential greenwashing and misleading statements across the EU. While new EU directives relating to green claims are on the table, it will take some time for these to be enacted by Member States and further time for enforcement action to be taken. The BEUCs complaint argues that current regulations cover a number of the green claims made by major traders in the drinks industry that require enforcement today.

Any practical tips?

The BEUCs complaint is a reminder that attacks on greenwashing can come from all directions, not just the regulators initiating their own investigations. Consumer groups are also forcing the pace of change, here in an action which may have far-reaching consequences for any business with recyclable or recycled packaging. The message is clear, namely that greenwashing remains one of the hottest topics in the consumer sphere right now, and businesses must approach any green claim (wording, imagery or otherwise) with extreme care and (very early) input from their legal teams.

Winter 2023