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European Parliament abandons neutrality in anti-greenwashing drive – Updated

The European Parliament has demonstrated a strong commitment to both consumer protection and the climate when it voted in favour of a ban on companies claiming that their products are “carbon neutral”. The Council of the European Union and the European Commission must support such a prohibition during the ongoing legislative process to review EU consumer protection rules.  

The Parliament voted on amendments to the European Commission’s proposal on ‘Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition’ , which is an update to the EU’s existing consumer protection legislation. This draft legislation is meant to better protect consumers against unfair commercial practices, such as greenwashing, that make it difficult for consumers to make more climate-friendly purchases. 

Although the Commission’s draft includes banning unsubstantiated “generic environmental claims”, it falls short of prohibiting carbon neutrality and offsetting claims, despite their proven track record of confusing, misleading or deceiving consumers and investors. Purporting to be carbon neutral has become a popular marketing strategy for companies seeking to give their image a green makeover while continuing to pollute with impunity, as documented in research by Carbon Market Watch and other organisations (see below). 

Carbon Market Watch welcomes this significant step forward but also urges the institutions to go even further during the upcoming interinstitutional negotiations, informally known as trilogues, and include an outright ban on all neutrality claims, including on services and at company-level. The Council recently adopted its own negotiating mandate, which does not include an outright ban on misleading neutrality claims at all.

“The Parliament’s decision to include a ban on product-level neutrality claims in its official position is a welcome development and should spur the Council and the Commission to take this important issue seriously,” says Lindsay Otis, a CMW policy expert on global carbon markets. “We also urge all three EU bodies to go even further and also ban company-level and service-level claims. If the other institutions do not shift their position during upcoming negotiations to reflect, at the very minimum, Parliament’s position, it will undermine the EU’s ability to genuinely crackdown on this kind of greenwashing. Such preposterous claims are based on flawed science; they confuse and mislead consumers; and their continued presence on the market could throw us off the 1.5°C pathway set forth in the Paris Agreement.”

Some MEPs also attempted to strengthen rules surrounding claims related to future performance (such as “net zero by 2050”), but the Parliament stopped short of banning future performance claims even when they misleadingly involve using carbon credits to compensate for emissions rather than actual emissions reductions. While the Parliament’s amendment is an improvement upon the Commission’s “Empowering Consumers” proposal, it is still insufficient to prevent corporations from claiming climate leadership while continuing to pollute with impunity, as outlined in the recent Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor.

The Parliament also stopped short of banning the advertising of fossil fuels as sustainable products, which is a clear shortcoming for something that should have been an obvious decision.

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This article was updated to reflect more specific information about the kind of carbon neutrality claims which the European Parliament voted to ban.

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