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Shoppers being `misled' by green claims

Watchdog report: Calls for stiffer laws on labelling

"Green" claims on many UK products are misleading, meaningless or even downright dishonest, a consumer watchdog warned yesterday.

The confusion over environmental benefits of household products is so rife that the National Consumer Council fears that many people may give up trying to buy green altogether.

The report, Green Claims, published to coincide with World Consumer Rights day, says that existing legislation fails "to tackle misleading claims on products".

Many claims made by manufacturers were woolly and vague. This included toilet roll which claimed to be "softer on the environment" and stationery made with "environmentally conscious paper".

Others were meaningless, such as "biodegradable" washing powders (all United Kingdom detergents exceed European Union standards on biodegradability anyway) or they disguised environmental hazards such as CFC-free products whose replacement product is just as dangerous.

The organisation also derided "recyclable" claims because in theory "almost anything is", and in practice very few local councils have the facilities to recycle. "Unless the consumer takes them to a special collection centre, the claim will be meaningless," the report said.

Logos - popular ones included globes, caring hands, streams and mountains - are also misleading shoppers who find it impossible to distinguish between official marks of approval and manufacturers' marketing tools. This simply increased shoppers' scepticism and confusion, the report said.

Environmental claims in advertising have been fairly well-regulated. But existing laws fail to tackle misleading claims on products and packaging. Prosecutions are taken up through the Trade Descriptions Act of 1968 by officers who have to prove the claim is false. To date there have only been four successful prosecutions.

"The situation is a real mess," said David Hatch, chairman of the NCC. "It's as much about what the label doesn't say as about what it does. As Robert Louis Stevenson said `the cruelest lies are often told in silence'."

The NCC is calling for the introduction for a new code of practice backed by a reformed Act and a co-ordinated consumer education campaign

It also supported the EU "ecolabel" which identifies products less harmful to the environment, and the energy label, which provides information on energy efficiency.

But Mr Hatch warned: "They are being crowded out and devalued by other labels displaying meaningless, cunning and deceptive symbols with weasel words and specious claims."

The Environment Minister James Clappison said that the Act was still a safeguard against demonstrably false claims: "However, the NCC report suggests that the Act is of limited effect in dealing with "on-products" claims . . . The Government prefers to make progress here by stimulating the market to work better, rather than by adding to regulation."

The supermarket chain Tesco said it welcomed the report and backed the proposal to regulate claims. And Keith Chesterton, director-general of the Soap and Detergent Industry Association, insisted the introduction of compact detergents, which cut down on transport and packaging costs, showed that there was concern in the industry.

Consumer council targets

Product: Daz Ultra [Procter & Gamble]. Claim: "Biodegradable: the cleaning agents in this product are broken down by natural products"

NCC says: All UK detergents exceed EU standards on biodegradibility. Manufacturer says: "It's not on there as a marketing claim, it's on there to give information . . . It's a perfectly justifiable statement."

Product: Safeways own-brand styling mousse. Claim: Abstract logo saying CFC-free.

NCC says: CFCs have been banned anyway. Replaced by butane which can contribute to low-level atmospheric pollution. Manufacturer says: "We put this on so customers will reassured that it doesn't contain CFCs . . . It's not a marketing claim it's a customer reassurance exercise".

Product: Ariel Future [Procter & Gamble]. Claim: World Wildlife Fund panda logo "Ariel Future is working with WWF towards a better environment"

NCC says: The WWF panda is a fund-raising device used by manufacturers who give a donation to WWF. In theory could be used on products which are environmentally damaging. Manufacturer says: "WWF would not allow us to use it if we were environmentally damaging. and secondly we have been working with WWF and doing this contribution item for six or seven years. We have an excellent dialogue with WWF."

Product: Tesco tuna fish. Claim: Dolphin friendly

NCC says: It does not say what it means by dolphin-friendly - presumably something to do with the nets they use. And also it is a completely unverifiable claim. Manufacturer says: "Ultimately we want to give our customers as much information as possible . . . We will certainly be looking into whether it needs changing".