51% of online products cannot prove claims of being environmentally friendly: S’pore study

Consumers are advised to be wary of broad and vague environmental claims.

Zi Shan Kow | November 16, 2023, 05:50 PM

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Ever came across a product that claimed to be "sustainable" and was puzzled by what it meant?

You're not alone.

A study, funded by the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS), looked into greenwashing practices on e-commerce websites in Singapore.

Unsubstantiated claims

If a supplier deceives or misleads a consumer into thinking its practices or goods and services are more environmentally friendly than it is, that is known as greenwashing.

Conducted by researchers from the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, the study looked at over 1,000 products offered on the 100 most visited e-commerce sites by Singapore residents in October 2022 and reviewed their environmental claims.

The most common form of greenwashing was unsubstantiated claims, the study found.

Based on samples surveyed, 51 per cent of online product claims were "vague with insufficient elaboration or details to support the claims".

These products often feature sweeping statements without any elaboration. Examples of vague environmental claims include:

  • "Environmentally friendly"
  • "Eco-friendly"
  • "Green"
  • "Sustainable"
  • "Good for the Earth"
  • "Natural"
  • "Conscious"
  • "Responsible"

These claims could also be "prone to overstatement or exaggeration".

For example, a supplier's claim that its product is “environmentally friendly” on the basis that the product is made of 10 per cent recycled material may be misleading if it is marketed to give consumers the impression that the product was made of 100 per cent recycled material.

Jargon that misleads consumer

Another common form of greenwashing comes in the form of technical jargon, which misinforms and exploits the consumer's lack of technical knowledge.

It is misleading to the consumer if the company uses terms that are not widely understood by the layman, or labels environmentally harmful materials as environmentally friendly.

In the study, 14 per cent of online product claims used technical language that made it difficult for consumers to understand or verify the claim.

Advice for consumers

How can you make informed purchasing decisions then?

The Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) and CCCS developed some tips for the public:

Image by CCCS.

If you encounter potentially false or misleading environmental claims by suppliers, you can approach CASE for assistance.

You can also report supplier for potentially misleading environmental claims on its advertisements to the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS).

To address potential greenwashing conduct by suppliers, CCCS is also developing a set of guidelines to provide greater clarity to suppliers on the environmental claims that could amount to unfair practices under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act.

They would seek views from the public on these guidelines.

Lawrence Loh, professor and director of Centre for Governance and Sustainability at NUS Business School, said that if consumers can make responsible purchases choices, it would drive businesses to meet consumer demands and "cater for more credible, sustainable products and business practices".

"By tackling greenwashing, we can then level the playing field and incentivise businesses to take socially responsible action,” he added.

Advice for suppliers

In making environmental claims, CCCS advises suppliers to:

a) Be specific in their environmental claims, presenting any qualifying or supporting information accurately and clearly alongside such claims,

b) Avoid making claims that would imply or convey an overall impression that the environmental benefit of the product is more than it is (e.g. degree of recycled material used), and

c) Ensure that all environmental claims can be substantiated with valid and credible evidence.

Technical jargon like “made of high-quality ABS eco-friendly material” might also confuse or mislead consumers on the environmental benefit of the suppliers’ goods, services or businesses.

To avoid this, CCCS advises suppliers to:

a) Use language that is easier for consumers to understand, and

b) Explain the meaning or implications of technical terms.

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Top image via Mothership.