On March 22, the European Commission is expected to publish new measures designed to crack down on greenwashing in product labels and advertisements. Among other provisions, the highly anticipated "Green Claims Directive" could force companies to be more transparent about the climate impacts of their products.
But what does greenwashing look like, and how common is it? A report released Tuesday by Changing Markets Foundation, a Dutch environmental advocacy group, concludes that "greenwashing in the food sector is rampant." The report finds that many environmentally friendly claims found on food labels and in advertising are exaggerated or unsubstantiated.
Over the past year, Changing Markets identified what it considers 53 examples of misleading green claims on food products and in marketing materials. Among the worst offenders were meat and dairy companies, whose products are responsible for the largest share of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. The food system contributes roughly a third of global emissions each year, much of it from raising and feeding livestock.
Nusa Urbancic, Changing Markets' campaign director and one of the report's authors, said that "over 80% of all the claims we found were related to climate," including describing food as "carbon neutral" or "climate positive." In its recommendations, the report suggests banning "outright generic climate claims," as well as claims based on carbon offsetting programs.
According to a draft proposal of the Green Claims Directive seen by Bloomberg in January, more stringent rules for companies are coming. Those doing business in the E.U. would be required to list the negative climate impacts of their products and services, the draft notes, and E.U. countries would have to ensure that environmental assertions made by companies about their products are backed by scientific evidence.
But the Changing Markets report also highlights how difficult it can be to pinpoint greenwashing amid inconsistent standards and terminology. Here are four examples of greenwashing as outlined in the Changing Markets report and how the companies behind them are pushing back.
Climate-neutral certified beer
Changing Markets finds that Anheuser-Busch, a U.S. subsidiary of Belgium's Anheuser-Busch InBev, highlighted its Bud Light Next beer as "Climate Neutral Certified" in advertising. But this "neutrality" is based on carbon offsets and not on reducing its emissions directly. Working with the nonprofit Climate Neutral, the beer company "measured emissions associated with the supply chain of Bud Light Next and bought $50,250 of carbon credits," the report notes.
There is growing evidence that offsetting programs, which let companies purchase carbon credits in exchange for emissions reductions elsewhere in the world, rarely work as advertised. Some of the projects they support, especially those in renewable energy, would often have moved forward either way, while others lack long-term impact or oversight.
In response to the greenwashing claim, Anheuser-Busch pointed to the climate neutral certification as part of its wider "ambition to achieve net-zero by 2040." The company noted that it has reduced the emissions of direct operations by over 48% compared with 2017, invested in renewable energy products and added alternative-fuel vehicles to its fleet.
Urbancic's team found that other companies pitching beef, infant formula, milk and yogurt products as "carbon neutral" and "climate positive" were predominantly using corporate offsetting programs. Changing Markets also commissioned YouGov polling to examine the label's impact on purchasing behavior: It found that 42% of U.K. consumers said they were more likely to buy a product with a "carbon neutral" label and 29% reported being willing to pay more for those products.
In a November social media post, Danish Crown described its pork as coming from "climate controlled" farms, which according to the company means that most of their pigs come from "climate audited farms" involving regular independent audits of farmers seeking to cut the climate footprint of their pigs.
Changing Markets described this as greenwashing, noting that Danish Crown faced pushback for a similar framing in the past. In October 2021, the company officially tabled a separate media campaign that had referred to "climate controlled pork," after Climate Movement and other organizations filed a lawsuit accusing the company of greenwashing. While Changing Markets suggests the use of "climate controlled farms" is also problematic, Danish Crown says that comparison is unfair and notes that the phrase "climate controlled" only appears in a social media campaign in passing, and is no longer used on any product packaging.
Swedish start-up Volta Greentech teamed up with the grocery chain Coop Group last year to debut the brand Lome, a "methane reduced" or "low-methane" beef. Beef is the single most carbon-intensive food, both because a lot of land is needed to raise and feed cows and because cows release the potent greenhouse gas methane when they burp. This venture seeks to reduce cows' methane emissions by feeding them seaweed.
The company says its feedstock can help cut cow emissions by 80%, but Changing Markets points out that this claim is based on a three-month pilot project of feeding cows this product. "It's greenwashing because you exaggerate the claim, right?" says Urbancic.
"We don't agree to the greenwashing statement," Fredrik Åkerman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Volta Greentech, wrote in an email to Bloomberg Green, noting the company does communicate that its emissions-reduction estimate is based on a three-month period, not the full life-cycle of beef. "We know that communication on food consumer products with lower emissions is quite tricky and we work on doing our best on making the communication as transparent as possible," he added.
A Changing Markets' poll found 31% of U.K. consumers and 19% of German consumers said they were more likely to buy meat and dairy with a "low methane" label, and 22% of consumers in both regions reported being more willing to pay more for such products.
Climate-friendly beef jerky
The Changing Markets report also makes mention of the thousands of products, including food and beverages, listed on Amazon.com's "Climate Pledge Friendly" page, calling it a "particularly striking example of greenwashing."
One of the qualifying certifications for Amazon's Climate Pledge products is "Compact by Design," which zeroes in on products that require less packaging and are more efficient to ship. Among those products considered "Climate Pledge Friendly" is Jack Link's Beef Jerky, which earned the designation because it comes in a more slimmed down packaging than competitors.
"Beef jerky is even more carbon intensive than normal beef because it's dried," Urbancic points out, and yet it's being sold to consumers as climate friendly because of more compact packaging.
Jack Link's did not respond to a request for comment by publication. When contacted by Bloomberg Green, Amazon said that while its Climate Pledge Friendly program is meant to help customers make more informed choices, Jack Links had been included in error and are being removed.