Vague statements about 'sustainable' products are misleading

CO2-neutral', 'environmentally friendly' or 'biodegradable': a large majority of consumers believe that such claims on products should be mandatory. After all, they influence purchasing behavior.

If consumers are under time pressure when shopping, they are often not in a position to rationally assess the provided information about products. For example, a green meadow placed on chicken packaging or a green logo on a tube of hand cream will then influence their perception. Products will then be perceived as more environmentally friendly than they actually are. This is the result of a survey conducted by the Alliance of Consumer Protection Organizations (Konsumentenschutz, FRC, ACSI), in which 3,500 people participated throughout Switzerland. "The survey thus confirms what behavioral science has also shown in various studies: Time pressure has a strong influence on the decision of what ends up in the shopping basket," says Sara Stalder, Executive Director of Consumer Protection. The consumer protection organizations are therefore calling for this insight to be taken into account when assessing unfair advertising. A product cannot be judged only by their wording, but the circumstances under which it is selected must also be taken into account.

Vague terms are used arbitrarily

The survey, which was conducted from the beginning of April to the end of June 2022, also shows what consumers understand by certain terms that are often found on product packaging. The term 'natural,' for example, means to 39% of respondents that a food is not highly processed. A quarter also believe that it does not contain pesticide residues or is even healthy. "However, this cannot be relied upon because there is no legal framework for the use of these terms," criticizes Stalder.

The same applies to the cosmetics and household sectors. A good 24% to 34% of respondents believe that so-called 'natural' products do not contain substances harmful to humans or the environment. "This does not have to be the case. These false expectations of consumers are cleverly exploited by suppliers," says Stalder.

Credible labels can hardly be distinguished from advertising

The results also show that credible labels cannot be distinguished from a company's own claims about environmental performance. "The latter, however, are of little use to consumers because they are not linked to precise requirements, nor are they monitored by an independent body. Once respondents are aware of this fact, the majority disapprove of these greenwashing practices," Stalder explains. The survey shows that respondents would therefore like to see the use of widely used terms such as 'climate neutral', 'environmentally friendly' or 'biodegradable' regulated and consumers not misled.

Better regulation in many countries

According to Stalder, there is no reason why Swiss consumers should be less well protected than European consumers are: "The Fair Trading Commission and politicians must show more commitment in combating greenwashing," Stalder demands. In many European countries, he says, there is a particular focus on this environmental whitewashing in unfair business practices. Some countries, such as France or Italy, have even adopted their own guidelines to prevent greenwashing, Stalder knows. She adds, "Switzerland should take a cue from them and put a stop to the flood of meaningless but deceptive claims."

About the consumer protection organizations

In the Alliance of Consumer Protection Organizations, three Swiss consumer protection organizations from three language regions coordinate their work for consumers: the FRC (Fédération romande des consommateurs) from French-speaking Switzerland, the ACSI (Associazione consumatrici e consumatori della Svizzera italiana) from Ticino and Konsumentenschutz. The latter provides information and advice, negotiates with suppliers and authorities, and is involved in politics on behalf of consumer interests in a completely non-partisan manner. Consumer Protection is a private foundation established in 1964. Its funding is broad-based: 87% of its income comes from patronage contributions and the sale of advice, 13% from a federal contribution. It has its headquarters in Bern. Its president is National Councilor Nadine Masshardt.