Claims to fame - the DEFRA Green Claims Guidance

Packaging Professional magazine
,
22 May 2011
DEFRA booklet cover

Lord Henley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, talks about efforts to promote clear, honest and accurate claims and labelling through the department’s recently published Green Claims Guidance.

Research published in 2010 by the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) found that nearly two thirds of over 3,000 sampled products contained at least one environmental ‘claim’ or label. Of these claims, about half were related specifically to the product’s packaging.

The last decade has seen an evolution in the demand for ‘greener’ products. From 1999 to 2009, the Cooperative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism report showed a three-fold increase in household spending on ‘ethical’ products in the UK.

Businesses are increasingly innovating to produce and sell products with less environmental impact. Echoing this, there has been a proliferation of claims and labels communicating the environmental impact of products on packaging and in advertising and marketing materials.

Despite an increased willingness to act, choosing a ‘green’ product within a crowded and sometimes confusing array of different environmental terms and labels can be challenging.

The Government wants to make these choices easier by promoting clearer and better environmental information. This is why the Green Claims Guidance, published by Defra earlier this year, has been updated. The Guidance is not seeking to restrict environmental communication. Rather, it aims to support the genuine and positive actions being taken by business, to build confidence in the market for greener products.

Consumers are now presented with a much broader range of impacts than before, and this is reflected in the updated Guidance. Alongside longstanding issues, such as recycling, there is now widespread communication on claims including ‘low carbon’, ‘fuel efficient’ and ‘good for biodiversity’. In this market, it can be difficult to understand and assess which claims are important.

Green claims on packaging have often been at the forefront of environmental communication, both in being a medium to communicate information and in representing part of a product’s environmental impact. While appropriate packaging may help reduce the environmental impact of food by keeping it fresh and usable for longer, its presence is sometimes viewed as unnecessary waste and resisted by consumers. Despite potential misconceptions, raising awareness of packaging waste has been positive in moving the supply chain to become much more resource-efficient and develop packaging solutions with less impact.

This demonstrates why clear, accurate, straightforward information is so crucial for educating us about what is important, to overcome incorrect impressions, and to focus action on the things that make a difference. The Green Claims Guidance outlines three basic steps for business to make a good environmental claim –

  • Ensure the content of the claim is relevant and reflects a genuine benefit to the environment.
  • Present the claim clearly and accurately.
  • Ensure the claim can be substantiated.


The first step is fairly simple. It is about having good information, analysis and knowledge available to focus the communication on what is most relevant or important. Being selective and strategic can help a business stand out in the vast array of information given to consumers.

The second step is about being accurate, clear, specific and unambiguous, to help consumers understand the intended meaning. Although seemingly straightforward, even recyclability labelling on packaging is not always clear to a consumer. A product labelled ‘recyclable’ may technically be correct, but if the right recycling infrastructure is not available locally, it may be confusing for a consumer to know how to act.

One industry initiative making great strides for better packaging communication is the On-Pack Recycling Labelscheme led by the British Retail Consortium. This label, now used by over 115 brands and retailers and appearing on more than 60,000 product lines, provides real information to the public. Rather than solely indicating whether or not some of the material is recyclable, it provides guidance on the recycling provision likely to be available for each particular part of the packaging – so instructions are clear to consumers.

The third step, ensuring that claims can be substantiated, is crucial for maintaining trust. Getting an environmental claim independently verified and being transparent can help bring credibility to environmental claims. Third-party endorsed logos, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Forest Stewardship Council or EU Ecolabel, for example, can help immediately indicate to consumers an aspect of a product’s sustainability.

In the transition to a green economy, which is essential for delivering sustainable development and long-term growth, we need to make it easier for consumers to make greener choices and support positive actions by businesses to reduce their environmental impact. As awareness of environmental issues is growing, consumers are becoming more sophisticated with their purchasing decisions and actions. Yet choosing ‘greener’ products is still not easy. Good, clear and accurate information can have benefits for us all – consumers, business and government alike – in moving together towards a strong and sustainable green economy for the long term.  

Further information

Defra’s Green Claims Guidance and summary Quick Guide to a Good Environmental Claim can be found at: www.defra.gov.uk/environment/economy/products-consumers/green-claims-labels, the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme: www.onpackrecyclinglabel.org.uk, EU Ecolabel information: http://ecolabel.defra.gov.uk, and the Cooperative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism report: www.goodwithmoney.co.uk/ethicalconsumerismreport.com