Unilever investigated by UK authority for 'greenwashing'

By Julia Wray | Published: 13-Dec-2023

The Competition and Markets Authority will scrutinise claims made by the consumer goods group about items including toiletries

Unilever is “surprised and disappointed” by an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into its green claims. 

The UK competition regulator believes the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) giant may be overstating how green certain products are via the use of claims it calls “vague and broad”. 

According to the authority, its initial review uncovered a range of “concerning” practices from Unilever. 

These included statements and language that it considered vague and which could mislead shoppers, as well as ingredient claims exaggerating how natural the product is. 

The CMA is also investigating claims by Unilever focusing on a single aspect of a product that may suggest it is environmentally friendly as a whole; and unclear claims in relation to recyclability that fail to specify whether they relate to all or part of a product, or packaging.

Finally, it raised concern over Unilever’s use of colours and imagery – such as green leaves – which may create the impression that some products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

The CMA did not specify which brands within the Dove and Lynx-owner’s portfolio it considered to be culprits. 

“Essentials like detergent, kitchen spray and toiletries are the kinds of items you put in your supermarket basket every time you shop,” commented the CMA’s Chief Executive Sarah Cardell. 

“More and more people are trying to do their bit to help protect the environment, but we’re worried many are being misled by so-called ‘green’ products that aren’t what they seem.”

She added: “So far, the evidence we’ve seen has raised concerns about how Unilever presents certain products as environmentally friendly. 

“We’ll be drilling down into these claims to see if they measure up. 

“If we find they’re greenwashing, we’ll take action to make sure shoppers are protected.”

If further investigation shows evidence of greenwashing and Unilever fails to change the way it operates, the consumer goods goliath could face court.

A Unilever spokesperson told Cosmetics Business: “We are surprised and disappointed with the CMA’s announcement and refute that our claims are in any way misleading.

“Unilever is committed to making responsible claims about the benefits of our products on our packs and to these being transparent and clear, and we have robust processes in place to make sure any claims can be substantiated. 

They added: “We use the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) to provide consumers with information on how to dispose of our packaging after use, and Unilever is a founding signatory of the UK Plastics Pact, which brings together the entire plastics packaging value chain to tackle the challenges around plastic waste.

“We will continue to cooperate with the CMA and fully comply with further requests for information.”

In January this year, the CMA’s work on environmental claims expanded to encompass FMCG items, including toiletries, and its investigation into Unilever forms part of a wider investigation into greenwashing.

While the UK body said it has not opened official investigations into other companies at this point, it stressed that new investigations may follow.

The European Union is likewise cracking down on greenwashing, with the European parliament and council announcing a provisional agreement in September on new rules to ban misleading ‘green’ ads. 

Unilever recently received criticism from environmental pressure group Greenpeace International over the statistic that it was expected to overshoot its pledge to halve virgin plastic use by 2025 by nearly a decade. 

However, a study released by non-profit financial think tank Planet Tracker this summer showed that Unilever outperformed Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Colgate-Palmolive in meeting climate transition goals. 

The report showed that Unilever – although on a path to surpass 1.5 times over the recommended target levels – nevertheless exhibited a more comprehensive mitigation strategy for Scope 3 emissions, especially upstream, than its competitors.

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