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Making correct & grounded sustainability claims

It is becoming more and more common to make sustainability claims, or environmental claims, to show how a product or its packaging has improved its environmental footprint. Claims like: ‘CO2 emissions decreased by 10%’ or ‘20% less plastic used’ are more often seen. As a result, the correctness of sustainability claims becomes the subject of more scrutiny.

In May this year, the Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) announced the start of an investigation on the sustainability claims of 170 companies in the energy, textiles, and dairy sectors. From an online investigation led by ACM together with other European regulators, it already became clear that claims often contain false, vague, or misleading information. Making it difficult for consumers to judge which product is actually the more sustainable option.

Guidelines for Sustainability Claims

There are various guidelines for making sustainability claims for companies, aimed to contribute to consumers’ confidence in sustainable products. Plus, as a result, markets for sustainable products and services can develop better. A number of the key guidelines are provided below:

Sustainability claims according to ACM:

In addition to their research, ACM published guidelines for sustainability claims that companies can use. With these guidelines, ACM aims to achieve that companies provide consumers with true and complete information about the sustainability of their products and services. ACM’s five rules of thumb for fair sustainability claims are:

  1. Make clear which advantages the product offers: Sustainability claims are only of use to consumers if these are clearly phrased and easy to understand, they should be specific about the product’s sustainability benefit.
  2. Substantiate your sustainability claims with facts, and keep them up-to-date: proof of the claim is required and will need to be checked regularly to make sure it still holds up.
  3. Comparisons with other products, services, or companies must be fair: ensure that comparisons with other products or companies will not lead to any misunderstandings among consumers.
  4. Be honest and specific about your company’s efforts with regard to sustainability: distinguish between general information about your company’s efforts with regard to sustainability and specific information about the benefits of an individual product.
  5. Make sure that visual claims and labels are useful for consumers, not confusing: use only clear symbols, pictograms, or labels that directly support the claim and do not give a false impression about sustainability.

Sustainability claims according to ISO 14021:2016

According to ISO 14021 standards family “an environmental claim is defined as a statement, symbol or graphic that indicates an environmental aspect of a product, a component or packaging”.

These claims may refer to any stage of the life cycle stage of a product, such as manufacturing, packaging, transport, use, or consumption and disposal. ISO has classified environmental claims into three types:

  • Type I environmental claims (ISO 14024:2018 Type I environmental labelling): environmental product claims that meet a set of requirements either set by a governmental body or a private organisation. Such environmental claims can be seen in different types of products in the form of logos or symbols showing criteria compliance. Examples are the EU Ecolabel and FSC.
  • Type II environmental claims (ISO 14021:2016 Self-declared environmental claims): these are voluntary claims made by manufacturers and businesses, thus “self-declared”. The aim of such claims is to stimulate the demand and supply of products and services causing less strain on the environment by communicating verifiable and accurate environmental product aspects. These types of claims do not mandate an LCA study but do require the consideration of relevant life cycle stages of a product to identify the impacts along the value chain (i.e. LCA screening).
  • Type III environmental claims (ISO 14025:2006 Type III environmental declarations): these claims present environmental information on the life cycle of a product and are based on ISO 14040/ISO14044 LCA standards. They require an in-depth LCA, with 3rd party verification and certification. Environmental Product Declarations(EPD) belong to these types of environmental claims.

Sustainability claims according to the EU

The EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive 2005/29/EC is the primary regulation on unfair business practices in the EU law. In particular, it focuses on misleading advertising, including environmental claims, that could potentially harm consumers’ economic interests or distort their economic behaviour. In this directive, two main categories are distinguished, claims which are deceiving either objectively (i.e. presenting fake information) or subjectively (i.e. information is truthful but the way of presenting may misguide the consumer).

What types of claims can I make with an LCA?

When it comes to using LCA results for just and legally acceptable claims, general communication legislation applies. Vague or dishonest environmental claims can be subjected to legal proceedings against the institution making them.

  • Claims with LCA calculations or a non-reviewed LCA study: The results of LCA calculations allow us to identify opportunities for environmental impact reduction within the value chain of a product. Additionally, the LCA results can be used for internal communication (presentation or leaflet) and for sharing environmental information with business partners (B2B) (direct communication during meetings). For environmental claims that are meant to be published externally, for example on the company’s website, the product packaging, or in general to consumers, a (non-reviewed) LCA study is not a recommended approach. Often at first, a regular LCA study is done, and as a follow-up step, the calculation can be reviewed for the results to be published externally.
  • Claims with a reviewed LCA Study: The results of a reviewed LCA allow an organization to communicate their environmental impact externally in business-to-business or business-to-consumer communications. Results of such LCAs are suitable to be disclosed publicly on the company’s website, the product packaging, and in general to consumers. In addition, in-depth LCA studies may include 3rd party review and verification (ISO claim type III), adding more credibility to the study, and being less likely to be questioned by external parties.
  • Comparative Assertion Claims: Making public comparative assertions and claiming that an organization’s product is environmentally better than one of a competitor, requires a comparative LCA. Publicly disclosed comparative assertions have additional requirements to guarantee the full comparability of the products and must undergo a critical review by an external review panel. It will be very structured, more scrutinized, and very robust, to avoid potential bias and to justify all decisions made that support the superiority of one product over the other. As a result, a comparative LCA is more challenging, time-consuming, and resource-intensive than a regular reviewed LCA.

Sustainability Claims - Graph

So where to start?

The type of claim you want to make will determine the type of LCA to be conducted and the corresponding budget.

For instance: If you aim at a self-declared environmental claim, then an LCA study may be sufficient for the purpose, depending on the availability and accuracy of company data needed for the LCA. On the other hand, if you want to communicate the environmental assessment publicly – aim at an Environmental Product Declaration or a comparative assertion – then a reviewed LCA study is more suitable.

In any case, the first step is to discuss with your consultant the reasons that are driving you to perform the LCA study and to set the goal and scope of the study correspondingly.


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Sustainability Claims

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