Consumer protection: Success against greenwashing

Zalando removes misleading environmental claims from its website

Das Bild zeigt ein Frau beim Onlineshopping an ihrem Laptop.Click to enlarge
Misleading environmental claims, so-called green claims, have no place on the Internet
Source: Gorodenkoff Productions OU /

The European consumer protection network CPC (Consumer Protection Cooperation), co-led by the German Environment Agency (UBA), has succeeded in removing misleading environmental claims ("green claims") from Zalando's European websites. Among other things, the company has removed its “sustainability” banner from product images, as this constituted an unauthorised claim of unrestricted environmental benefits.

UBA ⁠President Dirk Messner commented: “Growing environmental awareness means that consumers want to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. In order to capitalise on this trend, more and more companies are trying to create an environmentally friendly image with targeted marketing measures. This greenwashing suggests certain environmental benefits in connection with the purchase of products, although these benefits do not exist or at least have not been sufficiently proven. Consumers are being misled here. It is therefore all the more important that a market leader like Zalando has now promised to provide clear and specific information for consumers in future.”

“Green claims” are environmental claims in which certain environmental benefits are communicated to consumers. According to European law, such claims must be true and must not contain false information. In addition, the information must be understandable, precise and clearly formulated. If this is not the case, it may constitute a prohibited misleading of consumers within the meaning of Directive 2005/29/EC on unfair commercial practices.  

In April 2022, the European network of authorities CPC initiated a coordinated action against Zalando. At that time, Zalando was using sustainability labelling on product images in its online shops. These were green banners with the word “sustainability” written on them in white. This constitutes an unauthorised claim of an unrestricted environmental benefit. As a result of the dialogue during the coordinated action, the company agreed to remove these banners.

In their place, Zalando introduced small pictorial representations with environmental symbols – for example leaves or a tree. However, these so-called icons were also considered by the CPC Network authorities to be insufficiently explained and therefore misleading. Zalando has now agreed to completely remove these icons by 15 April 2024 at the latest.

The company has also made further commitments. In particular, the term “sustainability” or other terms that refer to an ecological and/or ethical benefit will no longer be used without an explanation in the immediate vicinity of such a claim. In addition, there will be clear information about the specific composition of a product as soon as the use of supposedly environmentally friendly materials is advertised. This means that in future, the percentage of the advertised material in the overall product will always be stated. Zalando will also revise its sustainability page to provide more detailed and easier-to-understand information for consumers.

Zalando will submit a report on the implementation measures taken, on the basis of which the CPC network will review whether the company has honoured its commitments.

Further information:

Advertising claims about environmental protection fall within the scope of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive 2005/29/EC. Particularly problematic – and usually misleading – are imprecise and general environmental claims in which the (alleged) environmental benefit is neither stated nor proven. Such vague environmental claims can be made not only explicitly, but also in the form of symbols, pictures or illustrations.

At EU level, two proposals for directives from the European Commission are currently in the legislative process: the Directive on Empowering Consumers for Environmental Change (“Empowering Consumers Directive”) and the Directive on Environmental Claims (“Green Claims Directive”). These directives are intended to enhance the instruments for preventing greenwashing and thus make it easier for consumers to make sustainable purchasing decisions. The “Empowering Consumers Directive” is expected to apply from 2026.

The UBA advocates for the collective interests of consumers across borders. However, it does not enforce the individual claims of individual consumers. Rather, they benefit as a community from the fact that abuses and violations by companies operating throughout Europe are uncovered and remedied.

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