Examining eco-labels: Certification bodies debate the proliferation of green credentials at IFE Manufacturing 2023
21 Mar 2023 --- With greenwashing claims and official certification in the spotlight, industry is examining the worrying trends of unsubstantiated sustainability claims and the official certification bodies combating the issue.
FoodIngredientsFirst attended the International Food and Drink Event (IFE) Manufacturing show in London to talk to key players across various verification labels initiatives following previous coverage on the proliferation of various unregulated eco or green labels across the F&B industry.
Catherine Coward, sustainability director at sustainability brand strategist The Good Crowd, outlines the dangers of untethered claims.
“In the eco-credentials and greenwash world, consumers hear terms like ESG, sustainability and impact. If you’re an investor, a retailer, or a consumer, how do you know if what you’re being told is real?”
For Coward, official certification by third-party bodies is the “best deterrent toward greenwashing.”
“Certification is one way to communicate to those stakeholders that you, as a business, are not just words,” she outlines. “To become certified, you are assessed across your whole business and supply chain across your impact on people and the environment.”
“How brands use claims as a marketing tool needs to be thought about carefully and right now,” continues Coward. “There are too many false, misleading claims in plays out there. It’s great that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and other bodies are tightening up through the green claims code.”
“There need to be some implications for those brands.”
However, Coward is glad that greenwashing is on the mind of consumers.
“Also, the fact that greenwashing has become a mainstream topic means that sustainability is getting some airtime, which is great.”
Cleaning up the greenwashing
Mark Machin, development manager for food at the Soil Association, is expecting a crackdown.
“The ASA was clear a year ago that they wanted to focus on the F&B sector. The reality is that they’ve only got the teeth to look at the huge businesses. Focus on adverse TV adverts and false advertising. That’s the comfortable space for them to do it in,” he says.
Machin underscores the need for specific language. “If we talk about ‘sustainability’ or ‘regenerative,’ what are we sustaining? What are we regenerating? We have to be clear. Otherwise, we will fall foul of ASA and risk being sanctioned.”
“Today, consumers are really savvy. Greenwashing is a real issue, so we must also trust our consumers.”
“What’s important to us is that the standards are verified and have some and have real consistency. So the organic standard is codified into UK law. So any marketing of a product using the term organic, whether as a finished product or as a reference to a farming system, must be verified by an application body like solar association certification.”
“Why is there that legal requirement? This is the standard recognized by governments and obviously business makers worldwide. Policymakers in Europe have already committed to long-term goals to increase organic agriculture.”
Ultimately, transforming a business to meet the high standards of official certifications has many benefits, with Machin noting that “the accreditation itself is sort of a byproduct.”
“That’s because they see real benefits – it’s the impact on the ground – and that’s important.”
Are consumers seeking eco information?
According to Andrew Bowring, partnership development manager at Fairtrade Foundation, says Gen Z consumers are conscious of provenance.
“They’re increasingly conscious of environmental impact and they’re also conscious of worker’s rights. That’s not to say that previous generations haven’t cared about that too, but consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the impact of their spending and people are trying to think of tomorrow, not just today.”
“There are a lot of eco-certifications out there,” states Bowring. “A number of them are doing fantastic work. But in some cases, the same due diligence hasn’t been pursued in all areas as we try to at Fairtrade.”
“In the same breath, it’s good that people are trying to certify more. There’s certainly a positive spin to more certified layers in the market. But when it’s done incorrectly, greenwashing can be potentially extremely damaging to the farmers and workers, let alone brand reputation and consumer confidence,” he asserts.
“That’s why we believe that strong certification marks which are independently verified are essential to our industry.”
Bowring highlights that Fairtrade is “here to fight on behalf of the farmers and workers.”
“I know several organizations that have been embroiled in greenwashing scandals. Ultimately, I think they want the same thing as us,” he continues. “We want to avoid greenwashing and unintended consequences because we’ve got farmers and workers involved at every step of the decision-making process. We do our best to mitigate the risks of greenwashing.”
Vegan and vegetarian claims seeking regulation
Also speaking with us at IFE, Martin Ranninger, co-director of V-Label International, a vegan and vegetarian trademark firm, says more than 50,000 products from more than 4,300 licensees carry the V-Label.
With regards to greenwashing claims and the topic of eco-label, Ranninger explains that previously, this issue has been problematic. “The terms vegetarian and vegan are not regulated by law, which we want to see change.”
He thinks regulating green claims is the way forward, and backing this up with actual data or studies is also crucial. “Many producers claim to be sustainable or eco-friendly, but what are these standards based on? Currently, a lot of what is happening in the industry are empty claims, so it's definitely a good thing that the EU is looking into regulating green claims. This should have been done a long time ago,” he explains.
When it comes to plant-based products, consumers will go for these products, as they are seen as “less harmful to the planet.”
“Ultimately, consumers want to lower their impact and naturally, they are looking for products with sustainability claims.”
In the past, we’ve seen 100% vegan or 100% plant-based, but when you check the ingredient process, you will find, for example, eggs, or whey proteins, which is confusing to consumers, explains Ranninger.
He insists there is notably more exposure to how the F&B industry is affecting the environment.
“Specifically in the last ten years, it’s not just carbon emissions, soil, biodiversity, and everything else. Consumers are more aware of the impacts their food choices play on the planet and they want to make a difference.”
By James Davies, with additional reporting by Elizabeth Green live from IFE.
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