What is “Greenwashing”?
Greenwashing can be defined as disclosing false, incomplete, or misleading statements or claims regarding the environmental impact of a company’s products, services, or business operations to consumers, investors, or third parties. In other words, greenwashing can deceive stakeholders of a company into believing that the company’s product or service is more environmentally friendly than it actually does.
Companies may choose to take this road since Environmental, Social, and Governance (“ESG”) is a trending topic and have an increasing impact on investors' and companies’ reputation. Companies may fall into the trap by thinking that using greenwashing on marketing campaigns and ESG reports may have a positive impact on their revenues however in the long run, regulatory bodies can fine these companies millions of dollars as the cost of deceiving consumers, authorities, and investors.
A well-known example of greenwashing is the Volkswagen scandal where Volkswagen presents its vehicles as eco-friendly in its marketing campaigns but reduces carbon emissions in tests by using software that can alter the performance of the vehicle to reduce the emission level when it was undergoing an emission test. In reality, the said vehicles were emitting up to 40 times the permitted limit for pollutants. Another example would be Nestlé regarding its statements in 2018 on aiming to have %100 recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace called attention to that Nestlé had not released a timeline for their targets or shown clear efforts. Contrary to Nestlé’s statements, Nestlé was ranked as one of the world’s top plastic polluters in “Break Free from Plastic’s 2020” annual report. And last but not the least, Starbucks introduced a straw-less lid design to the public as part of their sustainability agenda, but it was proved that the new lid’s compound has more plastic than the old straw and lid duo.
These examples can be interpreted as an attempt of pretending to comply with the regulations and standards whilst everything stays the same. If companies aim to fully comply with regulations, they should monitor marketing campaigns if there are any elements that can be perceived as greenwashing. Therefore, it is important for companies to be aware of types of greenwashing to take necessary measures. Greenwashing can take various forms such as:
- making vague claims,
- using environmental imageries for deceitful purposes,
- using misleading labels,
- hiding tradeoffs,
- making contradictory statements.
Greenwashing in Turkish Regulatory Landscape
The Consumer Protection Law numbered 6502 and dated 07.11.2013 (“Consumer Law”), Regulation on Commercial Advertising and Unfair Commercial Practices (“Advertising Regulation”) published in the Official Gazette numbered 29232 and dated 10.01.2015 and the Environmental Law numbered 2872 (“Environmental Law”) can affect greenwashing practices in Türkiye. Also, the Corporate Governance Communique and the Framework for Compliance with Sustainability Principles of the Capital Markets Board can be considered within the relevant legislation as secondary regulations.
Despite the wide range of regulations, there are some greenwashing practices in Türkiye too, which are no different than the abovementioned global brands’ practices. Especially in the construction industry and real estate projects, greenwashing examples can be observed.
Türkiye’s Board of Advertisement (“Board”) has published the “Guideline for Environmental Claims in Advertising” (“Guideline”), in accordance with its principle decision within the scope of the Board meeting dated 13.12.2022 and numbered 328 in order to enable the environmental statements and imagery in commercial advertisements and commercial practices carried out by companies to comply with the Consumer Law and the Advertising Regulation.
Highlights of the Guideline on Greenwashing
The Guideline provides the definition of “environmental claim” and regulates basic principles regarding greenwashing, principles on certification, recycling statements, renewable energy statements, and recovered water statements. According to Article 4(1) of the Guideline, an environmental claim is a statement or imagery regarding that a product or service provides environmental benefits or does not have a negative impact on the environment in relation to its component, production, market supply process, usage, or disposal process within the scope of commercial advertising or commercial practice. Following the definition, Guideline sets forth the basic principles on greenwashing in accordance with Article 5 as follows:
- Advertisements cannot be made in a way that exploits consumers' environmental sensitivity or possible lack of knowledge in this area.
- Environmental signs, symbols, and licenses may not be used in advertisements in a misleading manner.
- Generic terms such as "green", "sustainable", "eco", "eco-friendly", "nature-friendly”, “environmentally friendly", "zero waste", "recyclable", "environmentally safe", "energy efficient", "recyclable", "carbon neutral", "renewable", "green energy" cannot be used in advertisements without explanation or in a way that causes uncertainty for consumers regarding the environmental impact of the products or services or production processes. Explanatory information should be provided on what the environmental statements are related to, what is their purpose, and how they are used. If the channel on which the advertisement is published is limited to providing such information, consumers should be directed to a channel where they can obtain detailed information.
- Environmental claims regarding the legal processes and standards that a product or service or advertiser must comply with in accordance with the relevant legislation, or the non-use of processes or components that are not currently used, cannot be used in a way to create the perception that that product or service, process or companies are different or superior to their competitors or equivalents. For example, an environmental claim stating that the company is reducing the phosphate level in its detergent to save the oceans is a violation of the relevant legislation since there are already provisions restricting the usage of phosphate for all companies. Presenting this practice as it is the company’s own choice may lead consumers to think competitor companies are using phosphate more than this company. Claims regarding targeted future environmental impacts of goods or services may only be used in advertisements if they are included in a publicly available and verifiable strategy document.
- In the comparative environmental claims included in the advertisements, the content of the comparison should be clearly stated, especially whether the advertiser is comparing with the previous product of the same brand and content, or with the products of its competitors.
- It should be clearly stated which part, component, or process of the products or services the environmental claims relate to. For example, the phrase or image of "zero emissions" should clearly indicate whether a good or service relates to the production phase before it is offered to the consumer or to the process after it is made available to the consumer.
- Consumers should be clearly informed whether "biodegradable", "degradable" or "recyclable" claims relate to the whole or part of the product, including its packaging, and the circumstances under which they apply. For example, where a product is not recyclable or only certain parts or pieces of a product can be recycled, advertisements should not state that the entire product is recyclable.
- Matters related to the environmental label logo on advertisements must comply with the relevant legislation.
- Certificates and approvals mentioned in advertisements in relation to a product or its packaging or service must be verified. Communications that are inharmonious with the understanding of sustainable consumptions such as downplaying consumer behaviours that can lead to environmental pollution or excessive waste accumulation, encouraging non-recyclable packaging, leading consumers to ignore the negative environmental effects of their actions, encouraging or tolerating inappropriate waste disposal should be avoided.
The Guideline holds advertisers, advertising agencies, and media organizations liable for the environmental statements in their commercial advertisements. Companies must be aware that non-compliant practices within the scope of the Guideline are subject to, sanctions in accordance with the Advertising Regulation and Articles 61, 62, 63, and 77 of the Consumer Law. This liability does not cease with future corrections to be made in advertisements or commercial activities that are in violation of the aforementioned legislation.
The Board of Advertisements can take measures such as having the advertisement corrected, imposing administrative fines, or suspending the non-compliant advertisements for up to 3 months if deemed necessary. Measures to be taken can be imposed separately or jointly depending on the nature of the violation.
As the impacts of climate change and global warming increase, people are working towards reversing the effects and saving the planet. However, attempts on a personal level will never be enough, large companies must act too. Nowadays customers and investors are paying attention to companies’ eco-friendliness, sustainability goals, and their adaptation to ESG criteria. This has opened the way for many businesses to concentrate on growing into an eco-friendly shape. Since some of the companies have been acting deceitfully and conducting greenwashing campaigns to keep their long-established and unsustainable practices, further regulations to prevent greenwashing are needed. By publishing and enforcing this Guideline, Türkiye shows that sustainability and an eco-friendly approach in advertisements are a crucial part of business and an important element for creating a fair and competitive marketplace.
The Guideline is only available in Turkish. You can access it from here.
With thanks to İrem Alp for her assistance on this article.
 ROBİNSON Deena, 10 Companies Called Out For Greenwashing, Earth.org, 17.07.2022, https://earth.org/greenwashing-companies-corporations/ (Last accessed 09.03.2023)
 HAYES Adam, What is Greenwashing? How It Works, Examples, and Statistics, Investopedia, 08.11.2022, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greenwashing.asp#:~:text=Greenwashing%20involves%20making%20an%20unsubstantiated,impact%20than%20they%20actually%20do. (Last accessed 09.03.2023)
Kemal Altuğ Özgün
Ayşe Gönen Anaeli