On December 12, 2023, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (formerly the Competition Commission), an independent non-ministerial government department responsible for competition and consumer protection in the United Kingdom, announced in a press release that it is undertaking an investigation into claims made by Unilever UK Ltd. that its products are environmentally friendly and use natural components. Unilever has a wide range of brands that include Dove, Axe, and Comfort fabric softener.
The CMA is specifically concerned that Unilever’s products include:
- Vague and broad statements about the environmental impact of the products that might be misleading.
- Claims about ingredients that exaggerate how “natural” the product is or that focus on a single aspect of the product, giving the impression the entire product is environmentally friendly.
- Claims that are not clear if they relate to part of a product or the product in its entirety, such as whether it can be recycled.
- The use of colors and images that “may create the overall impression that some products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.”
The investigation was started under the provisions of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. The regulations provide a general prohibition against unfair commercial practices, such as containing false information that misleads consumers. The CMA has also published a Green Claims Code that provides guidance and a checklist for companies to help them determine if their environmental claims are genuine.
The investigation does not mean that Unilever has broken any laws, simply that the CMA is gathering evidence to consider whether Unilever has broken the law. If the investigation does determine that Unilever has broken the consumer protection laws, the CMA can take a number of steps, including obtaining undertakings from Unilever to change the way it operates, taking the company to court, or closing the case with no action.
This investigation forms part of the CMA’s wider investigation into “greenwashing” in the fast-moving consumer goods market, which involves considering whether consumers are being misled over whether products and services are environmentally friendly. In announcing the review of these products, the CMA stated:
Problematic claims include the use of vague and broad eco-statements, for example packaging or marketing a product as ‘sustainable’ or ‘better’ for the environment with no evidence; misleading claims about the use of recycled or natural materials in a product and how recyclable it is; and entire ranges being incorrectly branded as ‘sustainable’.
Clare Feikert-Ahalt, Law Library of Congress
February 5, 2024
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