Discussing the Green Claims Directive with Head of Unit Emmanuelle Maire

On 22 March 2023, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive to help fight greenwashing. The Directive establishes detailed rules at the EU level that aim at making green claims by companies reliable, comparable, and verifiable across the EU, protecting consumers, and contributing to a circular and green EU economy. Can you explain the connection between the Green Claims proposal and the proposal on Empowering consumers for the Green Transition?

More and more, consumers are willing to contribute to a greener and more circular economy in their everyday lives. However, they face barriers when trying to make environmentally sustainable consumption choices. For instance, consumers do not trust the credibility of the claims companies are making on their sustainability as they are often faced with vague, unclear or not-well-substantiated environmental claims, i.e., greenwashing.

The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive already regulates misleading practices with general provisions on all voluntary business-to-consumer commercial communication. In March 2022, the Commission proposed to update it to ensure that consumers are protected from greenwashing and to empower them to contribute actively to the green transition. The proposal Empowering consumers for the green transition introduces the notion of environmental claims to the scope and tackles greenwashing with a series of proposed measures including banning generic environmental claims (for which the trader is not able to demonstrate recognised excellent environmental performance) and banning unsubstantiated claims.

The proposal for a Green Claims Directive is designed as a complement to this consumer protection framework. Its scope is more narrow: voluntary environmental claims and labels in business-to-consumer commercial communication. The green claims proposal provides more technical and detailed rules on how companies have to substantiate and communicate the green claims they wish to make. There are also detailed rules for environmental labelling schemes to avoid a further proliferation of ecolabels which only confuses the consumer further and reinforce the trust in already established and reliable schemes such as the EU Ecolabel.

In short, the two instruments are self-standing and complementary, reinforcing each other and the fight against greenwashing.

Last, but not least, you can use the EU Ecolabel for Tourism accommodations to be among the best-in-class Europeans in this field. You can also use EMAS to progressively improve your performance in the field of tourism. No additional checks are necessary on claims made by using our EU Logos.

The Directive foresees that Member States shall provide support to SMEs on the implementation of the Directive. What do you think will be the real impact for SMEs in the hospitality sector?

In the current situation, companies making claims based on substantive efforts to improve their environmental performance compete with companies that publish misleading claims or apply less effort behind a similar claim. With the new rules, SMEs that are actually making an effort to improve their sustainability will be rewarded.

What are these new rules? Well, all companies will have to ensure the reliability of their voluntary environmental claims in business-to-consumer communications. They will also have to ensure these claims are communicated in a transparent way. They will ensure that their claims are verified by the independent verifier against the requirements of the Directive before they can make the environmental claim to consumers. If all the rules are complied with, the verifier will issue a certificate of conformity which is recognised across the EU. With this system, we also aim at reinforcing the credibility of all sectors outside of the EU.

It is our intention to include SMEs and support their green transition. They should be able to benefit from the opportunities provided by the market for more sustainable products without being impaired by disproportionate costs and technical difficulties in substantiating their claims. To that effect, several support measures are foreseen in the proposed Directive. The EU is to finance different flanking measures including the development of footprint calculation tools and the acquisition of high-quality data sets. The latter is especially relevant for SMEs when assessing their value chains. At the national level, Member States are also to provide appropriate support measures to SMEs wishing to make green claims on their products or services. These measures include guidelines to raise awareness of ways to comply with the new rules, financial support, specialised training and tailored technical assistance.

Micro-enterprises, i.e., having less than 10 employees or a turnover of fewer than 2 million euros per year, would not be obliged to substantiate and communicate their claims in accordance with the future green claims. They can opt for it if they so wish, but there would be no obligations on them.

Every day, tons of detergent and millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. This hotel is committed to conserving our earth’s natural resources. Here’s how you can help: a towel on the rack means, ‘I will use it again’. A towel on the floor means ‘please exchange’”: this is a common disclaimer one could find in many hotel rooms in Europe. Would this claim need to be verified by a third party?

The proposed Green Claims Directive targets voluntary environmental claims meaning any message in the context of a commercial communication which states or implies that a product or company has a positive or no impact on the environment or is less damaging to the environment than other products or companies or has improved their impact over time.

The provided example is not product or service specific, e.g., it does not differentiate one hotel from another. In our view, these communications would not fit the definition of an environmental claim[1].  As such, it would not need to be substantiated or verified by a third party.

[1] Full definition in Article 1 of the proposal Empowering consumers for the green transition.