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Empowering Consumers in the Era of Greenwashing

Picture of Christian Zurakowski

Christian Zurakowski

2023 Mannkal Scholar

This article originally appeared in The Spectator Australia

It is no shock that the rise of environmentalism has dominated the political scene for the last few years; evidenced by the rise of ‘Teal’ independents and the decimation of the Liberals from east to west. Debate regarding the environment is concerned with the level of government intervention that is required or justified: introduction of the carbon tax in 2013, the Renewable Energy Target to have 50 per cent of the grid powered by renewables, and the infamous ‘Net Zero’ debate.

The Liberal Party, and other right-wing parties, are in a tough position debating this topic. They either alienate their voter base through policy viewed as too extreme, such as Zac Kirkup’s promise to shut down public coal plants in Western Australia, or do not take sufficient action to win over the general public. For failure on right-wing environmental policy, there is no need to look further than the 10 ‘Teal’ Members of Parliament, many of which winning in seats that were traditionally Liberal strongholds.

It should come as no surprise that the environment is the conservative ‘Achilles heel’. Their key values call for a small government with minimal intervention in the economy. Perhaps there is an answer – a solution to the climate crisis which does not call for greater government spending or intervention and better yet, actual action against climate change.

This possible solution was inspired by a report released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (‘the ACCC’) of an internet sweep they conducted in October 2022. This sweep targeted environmental claims from 247 different brands/businesses across eight sectors. Of the 247 targets, 57 per cent were flagged for making concerning claims. The ACCC targeted ‘greenwashing’, the deceptive practice of companies appearing to be environmentally conscious despite taking no action.

In the ACCC’s report, eight key issues were identified from their sweep. These issues include vague and unqualified claims, a lack of substantiating information, the use of absolute claims such as ‘100 per cent recyclable’ or ‘zero emissions’, unclear comparisons (e.g. ‘our product uses 50 per cent less water’), exaggerating benefits or omitting relevant information, the use of aspirational claims without information as to how they will be achieved, the use of third-party certifications, and the use of images that appear to be trustmarks.

ASIC can penalise companies for ‘greenwashing’ under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct or false or misleading statements in relation to financial products. Earlier this year, ASIC issued an infringement notice and a fine of over $39,000 to one company for claiming their natural gas project has ‘Net Zero carbon emissions’ and ‘Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions’. Note that payment of a fine from an infringement notice is not an admission of guilt or liability.

Although, such a fine may only be a ‘slap on the wrist’ to large companies, these action evidence a policy stance that may be able to address climate change. The ACCC’s report is evidence that businesses see a commercial benefit to appear environmentally conscious. Consumers are conscious as to what they are buying. They are environmental activists in their purchases. I believe policy further empowering consumers is piece of the climate solution many have overlooked. This policy may take the form of greater funding or empowerment of the ACCC or ASIC to combat greenwashing. Allow them to impose harsher penalties for ‘greenwashing’ than is allowed for general misleading or deceptive conduct. Harsher penalties may be justifiable as ‘greenwashing’ exploits the consumers’ social values and is beyond the scope of a faulty, false advertised product. A less interventionist policy may be the introduction of a system similar to the health star system but instead reflects and rates the environmental practices of the company.

You may have come across articles accusing the coal, oil, and gas industry for the creation of the term ‘carbon footprint’ to offset liability from themselves to individuals for the climate issue. These same companies are responsible oil spills which represent some of the largest environmental disasters in modern history. As humans, we a susceptible to an effective PR scheme. Companies, by definition, exist to generate profit. No matter how effective and stringent Australian regulations are to combat the climate issue, these companies will traverse overseas to protect their profit. By empowering consumers, we can hurt their bottom line.

An environmental solution that promotes competition and transparency has an advantage over government overreach. Environmental concern is considered a luxury good, at least currently. Being environmentally friendly does come at a cost until sustainable practices and energy is more profitable than their carbon alternatives, being green will always cost a premium. Although some of us can bear the cost, there are many who cannot, particularly with today’s cost of living pressure. One of the arguments against raising the GST from 10 per cent to 15 per cent is that it unproportionally punishes low-income earners. This line of reasoning has been vacant in the environmental debate. Greater transparency will allow those who can, to spend their money on environmentally friendly products without forcing those who cannot.

This proposal is not a be-all-and-end-all solution. I doubt the general public will be satisfied that a policy along these lines will excuse a total lack of active environmental policy. But I do believe it is a part of the puzzle that has been overlooked. Through such a policy, the right-wing parties can justify their laissez-faire approach to the environment whilst still being proactive. Such a policy will introduce a point of difference between them and Labor without sacrificing their values.

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