Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Misleading Green Labels: From Food and Fashion to Cars

The phrase “Made from recycled materials” was what first caught my eye, printed on a label attached to a sweater. Upon closer examination, I found that the word recycled referred to the small label itself, and not the sweater, which was not made from used or recyclable materials. This is an extreme form of fraud that seeks to deceive the consumer while also avoiding prosecution.

One cannot help but wonder that if this type of deception can happen in a European country which imposes strict standards on label information, what about third world countries, where blunt lies can pass without fear of consequences or penalties. While the description of the components of the removable label is deceptive, it’s not illegal, as it is recycled and can be removed from the sweater, and this does not warrant clear punishment. But who would imagine that the description refers to the small piece of paper, and not the sweater itself?

Environmental protection, preservation and regeneration of natural resources, and sustainability in general, have become popular slogans that appeal to the consumer, who, even though may not believe in the message, wants to project compliance to modernity and fashionable trends.

In spite of superficial interpretations, it is essential to note that awareness about the importance of preserving resources and protecting the environment has become a profound conviction and dominant feature in many societies. Just as we find among consumers those who raise environmental slogans for public show, there also are those who actually believe in them; equally, as we find companies that use environmental slogans to hide commercial marketing deception, others ardently adhere to social responsibility standards. Similarly, some of the organizations that award classification certificates have experience and merit, while others are fake and, as a consequence, sell fake certificates.

It is enough to review the advertisements placed by fake organizations hiding behind fake names, such as “academy,” “university” and “international organization,” to grant fictitious certificates and titles such as “expert,” “consultant,” “arbitrator,” and “observer,” for us to guess what we can expect from them. Fake title holders promote themselves as specialists qualified to conduct training and bestow environmental credentials to factories, companies and products of all kinds, and each certification comes with a price tag.

In the absence of oversight, trading in false titles from fictitious bodies becomes popular. They are aided in their endeavor by a suspicious silence and an exchange of lies. Most of the holders of doctoral degrees from fake universities, which were exposed many years ago, still hold their jobs in several Arab countries, some of them senior government officials and university “professors”. What achievements can be expected from these people other than disasters?

We have never heard that any commercial company operating under the guise of “university” was punished or shut down for the scandalous distribution of thousands of fake certificates, the most recent of which happened in Lebanon and Egypt. These phonies are among those who grant environmental certifications and classifications, and monitor compliance where there is a sort of standard to be applied.

Examples of vague content labels on popular products in our countries include organic food, organic fertilizers, eco, sustainable product, environmentally-friendly, natural, green, low carbon, energy saving, among others. The credibility of these attractive slogans becomes doubtful when they are not supported by explanation and proof, and are not subject to independent scientific scrutiny and oversight by real specialists, not holders of fake degrees and titles. Who conducted the tests and where? What were the results, and according to what criteria?

The clothing and food industries are at the forefront of groups using misleading environmental slogans. It is not enough to place the product in a brown paper bag or cardboard box, with a “recycled” logo, for it to be environmentally-friendly.

A recently published study showed that 60 percent of well-known fashion brands place labels with misleading information to customers, while some of their products actually contain a greater amount of non-biodegradable synthetic fibers, emit huge amounts of carbon during their production and distribution, and consume and pollute larger amounts of water, compared to other products that do not claim sustainability.

One of the strangest contradictions is the advertising campaigns carried out by some major fashion houses to promote their products as being environmentally sustainable and help to conserve resources, seducing clients to buy more of them, while protecting the environment begins with limiting consumption patterns.

There is no doubt that verifying the accuracy of environmental claims and logos on food products is most complex, as food production has major impacts on nature. Unsustainable agriculture, including livestock production, contributes to desertification, drought and reduced soil fertility, produces polluting waste and releases harmful emissions into the atmosphere, especially methane.

Pesticide producers are still one of the most powerful lobby groups, as they continue to market some of the most toxic substances, especially in developing countries, with misleading labels on the packaging. The PR companies whom they pay hundreds of millions rush to cry famine if their products are no longer used, which happened in the European Parliament recently.

A prominent example of deception is the false information on cosmetics packaging, whose producers exploit loopholes in the laws to hide the dangerous health effects of a large portion of them. I remember that many were surprised by the detailed information in one of the cover stories of Environment & Development magazine in 2005, entitled “Poison in Your Perfume”, thinking it was mere exaggeration. The article included a list of dozens of perfumes and cosmetic brands that contain toxic substances harmful to humans and nature, without proper description on the label. However, interest in this topic has increased worldwide in recent years, and greater oversight has been imposed to ensure the accuracy of the information accompanying cosmetic products.

While most developed countries have imposed strict conditions on manufacturers of cars, machinery, and household appliances to provide clear explanations about consumption of energy of their products, alongside ingredients used, emissions, and environmental impact in general, the information accompanying these products in most Arab markets remains ambiguous or completely absent, with the exception of some countries that have established professional organizations to set specifications and standards, with effective oversight bodies, such as in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco and Tunisia.

Despite abundant laws and restrictions, a study found that 53 percent of environmental claims on products sold in EU countries remain “vague, misleading and unproven”, and 40 percent are “untrue”. Because this happens due to loopholes in the laws, the EU has passed additional laws for product labelling. These require companies to undergo audit by specialized licensed bodies, and to conduct an independent scientific evaluation and investigation of the validity of the information before allowing labels to be placed on products. In order for the consumer to be able to verify the information, the new law requires companies to place a QR code on the label, which can be scanned with a smartphone to provide access to complete information authenticating the claims.

Fighting green washing involves setting strict rules to prevent misleading claims. This requires laws based on strong scientific foundation, qualified oversight bodies to enforce their implementation, and deterrent penalties for violators.