‘Climate-Controlled’ Sausage? Courts Crack Down on ‘Greenwashing’


A “climate-controlled” sausage. New trousers labeled “recycled.” A “sustainable” airline ticket.

More and more, big brands are using taglines like these to cater to their green-minded customers. And more and more, they are under fire from courts and regulators for making climate promises they can’t keep.

Researchers at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment last year identified “an explosion of ‘climate-washing’ cases,” using existing national laws and regulations. Between 2020 and 2022, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number of cases challenging the “truthfulness of corporate climate commitments” more than doubled, their tally found.

This year, this dynamic is playing out in several countries.

In Denmark, a national court in March told Danish Crown, the country’s biggest pork producer, that it’s misleading to label its pork “climate-controlled,” though it declared that it’s fine to assert that Danish pigs “are more climate friendly than you think.”

In Britain, also in March, the Competition and Markets Authority, a regulatory agency, looked into the climate claims of several fast-fashion brands and concluded that it’s misleading to stamp a green leaf on a product and call it “recycled,” without specifying how much of its content is actually recycled.

A Dutch court prohibited KLM from using the slogan “fly responsibly” in its advertisements.

And in New York, State Attorney General Letitia James sued the meat multinational, JBS, for making “sweeping representations” about neutralizing its emissions in the coming years, but offering “no viable plan.”

These cases reflect how campaigners are using an ever-wider range of national and international law to slow down climate change. They have sued governments for failing to protect their citizens’ constitutional rights to life, and occasionally won, as in a case in Germany. They’ve used human rights law to challenge governments, most recently winning a case at a regional European court. They’ve sought to leverage international treaties, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to force governments to rein in emissions.

Complaints against alleged greenwashing are now gathering steam.

Another database, maintained by the Columbia University Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law since 2011, found that among climate cases filed against private entities, the largest number of cases — a total of at least 77 — alleged misleading advertisements.

These complaints also reflect a business imperative. Companies selling everything from toothpaste to soup are trying to meet changing consumer demands.

In the United States, sales of consumer products that are labeled green or sustainable are growing twice as fast as those that are not, according to research from New York University’s Stern School of Business, with younger and wealthier consumers more likely than others to buy those products.

“This is a market opportunity, and companies should figure out how to make claims authentically,” said Tensie Whelan, director of NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business.

The lawsuits can be a double-edged sword. They can hold companies to account, but they can also make companies trying to cut their emissions reluctant to market themselves as such.

“The easiest thing for companies is to say, ‘I just won’t say anything about it anymore or I’ll downplay what I do because that minimizes the risks,’” said Branda Katan, an attorney who represented KLM in court in The Netherlands.

JBS, the world’s biggest meat producer, is among the most closely watched of these cases in the U.S. Responding to the latest complaint by Ms. James’ office, JBS told The New York Times that it disagreed with the allegations and that it would “to help feed a growing population while using fewer resources and reducing agriculture’s environmental impact.”

The press spokesperson for Danish Crown did not return an email asking for a response to the court ruling in Denmark. On its website, it explains that “climate-controlled” refers to the measures taken by pig farmers to reduce emissions from their operations.

Airlines have become a popular target of greenwashing lawsuits. An advocacy group filed a complaint against more than a dozen airlines for allegedly breaching European Union consumer protection laws, arguing that the offer of offsets are misleading because the emissions savings from offsets are “uncertain.” (An airline industry group responded to the complaint by saying that “while offsets currently play a role, their significance will diminish” as airlines develop more efficient fleets and develop alternatives to jet fuel, a heavy pollutant.).

Meanwhile, three separate cases are pending in U.S. courts, against three different airlines over their use of terms like “carbon-neutral” and “sustainable.”

Energy companies are a relatively new target. In Canada, a climate advocacy group called Client Earth filed a complaint in April against FortisBC for its advertising campaign promoting what it calls “renewable natural gas,” or the methane that is captured from livestock farms and landfills. Lawyers with Stand Environmental Society, an advocacy group, argue that the ads are deceptive, since most of the gas supplied by FortisBC to its customers for home heating comes from fossil fuels, while a small share comes from the gas captured from landfills and farms.

FortisBC issued a statement saying it disagrees with the plaintiffs’ allegations. “FortisBC takes climate change very seriously and is taking action to help B.C. meet its climate goals,” the statement read.

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