Climate Neutrality as Form of Advertising – are we actually allowed to do this?
Are we allowed to advertise using climate neutrality? And if so, what is the right way to go about doing it? This question is currently at the forefront of discussion for many companies, as the NGOs involved in arguing against this tactic are becoming more aggressive and a various court decisions are causing uncertainty.
What is the current legal situation? And what communication strategies do we recommend as experts? 150 participants at the 5th Climate Dialog Compact, organized by Engel & Zimmermann and Fjol in cooperation with the Center for Sustainable Corporate Management, offer an explanation/potential solution to this issue. The following article highlights their main arguments and findings. Any more questions? Feel free to contact us today!
Consumer Misdirection: Greenwashing instead of honest climate action
The recent publishing of the press release from the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (German Environmental Aid) has caused quite a new stir with their article: “Consumer deception through allegedly “climate-neutral products”: German Environmental Aid … | Press Portal”.
To quote said article: “The comprehensive evaluation of the climate promises made by large corporations, automotive and petroleum companies in particular, shows us once again how these corporations tend to engage in greenwashing instead of honest climate action. In deceiving their consumers with false climate promises, they hurt the climate in a couple of different ways: by failing to provide real climate protection and by tricking people into buying products that are disguised as “climate neutral” but that are actually harmful for the climate, so they can feel good about it.”
Furthermore: “We call on Marco Bushman, Minister of Justice, and Steffi Lemke, Minister of the Environment, to campaign emphatically at EU level for a ban on advertising with false climate neutrality promises.”
Die grundsätzliche Frage, ob man den Begriff klimaneutral im Zusammenhang mit dem eigenen Unternehmen, einem Standort oder einem Produkt werblich verwenden darf, ist einfach zu beantworten: Ja, man darf.
The trigger that led to the call for a ban on the use of the term was apparently the report by Carbon Market Watch – for fair and effective climate action and the New Climate Institute, which published the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor 2023 | New-Climate Institute.
However, the basic question of whether it is permissible to use the term climate neutral in advertising in connection with one’s own company, a location, or a product is easy to answer: Yes, it is.
Court Decisions on Climate-Neutral Products
According to lawyers such as Dr. Oliver Stegmann (ESCHE SCHÜMANN COMMICHAU, Hamburg), we are walking on thin ice. So far, there is no clear definition of climate neutrality. Instead, there are already several judgments that deal with the promotional use of the term.
- Misleading by the use of a logo with the term “climate neutral” in advertising for ecological washing, cleaning and cleaning agents: OLG Frankfurt a.M., Urt. v. 10.11.2022 – 6 U 104/22
- Climate-neutral garbage bag: LG Kiel, Urt. v. 02.07.2021 – 14 HKO 99/20. Here, the next instance cashed the decision: OLG Schleswig, Urt. v. 30.06.2022 – 6 U 46/21
- Climate neutral premium heating oil: LG Konstanz, Urt. v. 19.11.2021 – 7 O 6/21 KfH
- Frozen croquettes: “100% CLIMATE neutral” (LG Frankfurt, judgment of 31.05.2016 – 3-6 O 40/15)
- Poultry manufacturer: “climate neutral poultry specialties” (LG Oldenburg, judgment of 16.12.2021 – 15 O 1469/21)
- Marmalade: “climate-neutral product” (LG Mönchengladbach, Urt. v. 25.02.2022 – 8 O 17/21
According to Stegmann, these rulings are case-by-case considerations. It remains unclear, for example, how the “duty to inform” has to be interpreted and how detailed the information provided on climate neutrality actually has to be. Whether the QR code on the packaging or the reference to further information on the respective website via an asterisk on the packaging is sufficient, could be assessed differently from case to case.
Stegmann expects that it will be another three to five years before the Federal Court of Justice issues a ruling on the issue of climate neutrality. Until then, he advises companies to:
- only make statements on climate neutrality that are actually accurate and credible
- avoid blanket advertising with “general” climate neutrality
- instead, make it clear that climate-neutral does not mean emission-free
- use terms such as “climate neutral through compensation
Climate Neutrality from a Communication Perspective
We’ve already had a blog post in which we criticized the “climate-positive product” claim and described the basic pitfalls of communicating climate neutrality. The do’s and don’ts (see below) that we brought forth are simply a rough guideline.
From a communication perspective, the term climate neutral is anything but “dead”. It is politically established and continues to be used globally, nationally and regionally. Offsetting (by means of service providers) will also continue to exist – even if it is currently in the line of fire. As we see it, the term climate neutrality was not used or explained precisely enough in the past and this means many companies have some catching up to do.
In terms of content, we advise companies to put in their own efforts and their own (minimization) projects first, then to use those two changes as a basis to build PR campaigns. We also advise to prepare the information according to the target group and to use landing pages. The prerequisite for avoiding greenwashing accusations lies in the accuracy of the numbers and the communicated information, as well as the naming of goals and the integration of suitable third parties or project partners.