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ACM: consumers find claims regarding carbon offset unclear

The information provided by businesses regarding carbon offset is not easy-to-understand for many consumers. One in two consumers sees little to no difference between carbon reduction and carbon offset. Most consumers do not understand the term ‘carbon-neutral’. The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) had a survey carried out to find out to what extent consumers understand the claims regarding carbon offset when purchasing airline tickets. ACM comes to the conclusion that the use of such sustainability claims may invite misleading practices, and ACM will therefore deal with misleading claims.

Edwin van Houten, Director of ACM’s Consumer Department, says: ‘More and more businesses offset the carbon emissions of products and services they sell. It is important that the information they provide about such offsets is clear to consumers. Our survey shows that consumers do not understand the term ‘carbon-neutral’ that well, and neither do they understand the difference between carbon reduction and carbon offset. The use of vague and unclear terms may invite misleading practices. If so, we will take action against that’.

Consumer survey into carbon claims

The most important results of the survey into the valuation of carbon claims when buying airplane tickets are:

  • Terms such as ‘carbon-neutral’ are not properly understood.
  • Less than half of consumers see a difference between carbon reduction and carbon offset.
  • Consumers have little confidence in carbon-offset claims, and believe that third-party certification would increase confidence.
  • Consumers find it important to have a clear explanation of carbon-offset claims. More, better, and clearer information will help them better understand carbon-offset claims. The survey also reveals that extra information does not always lead to a different purchase decision.
  • Four in ten consumers find it important that some form of carbon offset is offered, but, in practice, price is the most important aspect when purchasing airline tickets.

These results show that there is a serious risk of deception when using general and vague terms such as ‘carbon-neutral’ and ‘climate-neutral’. Businesses should therefore avoid these terms, and provide clear and concrete explanations with their claims. ACM sees that businesses in various sectors use these general and vague terms. Over the next few months, ACM will pay extra attention to the use of misleading carbon claims. ACM calls on consumers and businesses to file reports about general and vague carbon-offset claims. Such reports may lead to enforcement action.

What should consumers pay attention to?

As consumers, you should take a critical look at carbon-offset claims. There are many providers for carbon-offset projects, one more trustworthy than the other. Furthermore, the fact that the carbon emission is offset does not mean that all harm to the environment has been undone. Thus, carbon offset is not the same as the reduction of carbon emissions, in other words carbon reduction.

When buying a product for which the carbon emission is offset, please pay attention to the following points:

  • Has the project been certified by a third party?
  • Is it clear how much carbon is offset, and how this has been calculated?
  • Are you able to see how the carbon is compensated? In what projects?

Stricter rules

While making misleading sustainability claims (or ‘greenwashing’) is already prohibited under current consumer regulations, the rules will be tightened. In the recent European proposal ‘Empowering consumers for the green transition’, clear boundaries are set regarding the use of terms such as ‘climate-neutral’ and ‘carbon-neutral’. These stricter rules are meant to prevent deception and to enable consumers to make sustainable choices more consciously. ACM underscores the importance thereof.

ACM and sustainability

ACM ensures that markets work for people and businesses, now and in the future. Sustainable products and consumption are essential for a future-ready society. With its oversight over sustainability claims, ACM plays its part in that process. Consumers must be able to make sustainable choices with confidence, and businesses that undertake sustainability efforts must be protected against businesses that compete unfairly by using misleading claims. In addition, ACM wishes to create the right conditions for promoting the sustainability transition. ACM eliminates obstacles, and offers leeway where needed and possible.

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