8 Feb 2024

Finding out the truth behind sustainability claims from brands

From Afternoons, 1:15 pm on 8 February 2024
Empty shopping trolley in a supermarket

Photo: 123RF

One in four New Zealanders are willing to pay more for sustainable products, accounting giant Ernst and Young's latest Future Consumer Index has indicated.

But how do consumers distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to sustainable claims?

More than half of of the 500 New Zealand respondents were planning to pay more attention to the environmental impact of what they consumed, and they expected businesses to be delivering on claims.

However, 55 percent of those surveyed said misleading information was preventing them from shopping sustainably.

Laura Gemmell is chief executive of Eco Choice Aotearoa which helps people buy products proven to be better for the environment. She told Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan she was not surprised by the survey's results. 

They mirrored the findings of other surveys by organisations such as Kantar over the last 14 years. 

She said it was understandable consumers were confused by sustainability claims. 

While some people were doing "good work" in the certification area, some fell short while a lot of businesses were making up their own badges to make them look like third party claims, such as having a leaf or tree on the product. 

Gemmell said she had fallen for the tree picture herself while doing some quick supermarket shopping. 

Shoppers wanted to do the right thing but could get "ticked off" if they found they had been tricked. 

She believed supermarkets could help out online shoppers by doing more work in the space, perhaps by providing a filter, for those wanting to opt for sustainable items. 

"Lots of these supermarkets have big sustainability teams now, so they're not starting from scratch. 

"They're aware of which eco labels and certifications are legitimate, so it's just simply putting some process in place." 

Gemmell said it would be a bonus if they also looked at "weeding out" some of the products that did not stand up to scrutiny on their sustainability claims. 

Call for procurement to be done sustainably 

She said her organisation wanted to encourage the government and other businesses to procure sustainably. 
To do this they would need to have processes in place, for example, have a list of pre-approved items that were eco friendly. 

Among the factors to be considered were the manufacturers' attitude to waste disposal, use of water, product stewardship and modern slavery. 

"And that goes back to the debate around the cost of products as well. I think a lot of people would be willing to pay a lot more if they knew it wasn't being made by an eight-year-old overseas."

She said there was a myth that sustainable goods were always more costly when that was not necessarily the case. 

"There might be a more expensive outlay but they might save you money in the long run. They're usually repairable, or they have some sort of warranty, they're durable, probably more efficient in terms of energy, refillable, re-useable, those sorts of things." 

EU initiative 

Gemmell discussed work being done by the European Union that is set to come to fruition this year in an effort to make things less confusing for consumers. 

The EU's Green Claims Directive is the result of research in 2020 that found 42 percent of the claims being made in supermarkets were either "plain wrong or misleading". 

Once it takes effect, any environmental claims will need to be backed up by third party organisations which must be on an approved  list overseen by an arbiter. 

Asked to nominate reliable sources for Kiwi consumers wanting to check out sustainability claims, Gemmell nominated her own organisation, Eco Choice Aotearoa, which had been operating in the field for 30 years. 

It was a voluntary organisation which looked at environmental impact from raw extraction of materials to product stewardship, safety and whether something was fit for purpose. 

It also used other eco labels for its certification so they could evaluate parts of the manufacturing process that Eco Choice Aotearoa could not access. 

B Corp and Fair Trade were other highly regarded organisations operating in the sustainability field, she said.