As carbon neutrality, which considers the environment, has recently emerged due to the climate crisis, consumers’ interest in “ESG management” is increasing. According to the National Institute of Korean Language, ESG management refers to “a management philosophy that considers environmental protection and social contribution through environmental, social, and transparent management, abides by laws and ethics, and improves governance.” In accordance with this social trend, there are increasing cases of ‘greenwashing’ that promotes an eco-friendly corporate image, but the actual reality is not the same at all. According to the Ministry of Environment’s environmental terminology dictionary, greenwashing is a compound word of “green” and “whitewashing.” In this regard, a CBT reporter introduced the case of greenwashing and covered the countermeasures against greenwashing at the national level and at the individual level.
Examples of Greenwashing
In June 2020, cosmetics company Innisfree launched the ‘Green Tea Seed Serum Paper Bottle Limited Edition’ product. On the exterior of the product’s container, “Hello, I’m paper bottle” is written. Unlike the outer packaging that says paper bottle, the inner packaging is actually a product made of a plastic. The product name was misleading as if the entire container had been made of paper.
In Sept. 2021, Starbucks Korea held a Reusable Cup Day event. Contrary to the original purpose of reducing plastic usage, the reusable cups used for the event consisted of polypropylene(PP), which is a general plastic used for disposable packaging and delivery containers. The Korean Federation for Environmental Movements criticized the event, saying “Starbucks is deceiving consumers by showing contradictory behavior which is mass-producing another plastic waste instead of actually reducing plastic.”
Last year, E-Land Group’s clothing brand SPAO sold an Eco Leather Jacket. Eco is a prefix that means “environment” in English, and just looking at the name of the product gives consumers the impression that it is environmentally friendly clothing. However, according to detailed information provided by the company, the material of the clothes contains polyester and rayon. It is the same as the artificial leather material which is sold in the market. Alarmingly, it was promoted as if it had been eco-friendly by attaching the name “eco.”
Last year, Samick Furniture, a comprehensive furniture brand, used the expression ‘use only eco-friendly E1 grade materials’ when promoting a number of furnitures including beds, and was caught by the Ministry of Environment for greenwashing. The E1 grade is one of the quality standards for formaldehyde emission of plywood according to the Standards and Quality Basis for Wood Products of the Korea Forest Service. Formaldehyde is one of the main components of adhesives used to make plywood. When testing how much formaldehyde is released from plywood, SE0 is given the least amount, followed by E0, E1, and E2. Regarding this, the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute said, “E1 grade is the legal minimum standard that indoor furniture must have. It is considered that one of the requirements for eco-friendly furniture is satisfied by using wood materials of E0 grade or higher, which are higher than E1 grade. Therefore, labeling “environmentally friendly” for using E1 grade materials is greenwashing.”
Countermeasures against Greenwashing
According to the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute, greenwashing lowers consumer confidence in eco-friendly products, making consumers turn away from eco-friendly products. As a result, the morale of companies producing eco-friendly products may decrease, and the order of the eco-friendly product market may collapse. Therefore, it is necessary to take measures to prevent greenwashing at the national level. First of all, in order to judge greenwashing, a clear standard for what is eco-friendly is needed. Accordingly, in June 2020, the EU established a green taxonomy for the first time in the world as a means to increase transparency by filtering out corporate greenwashing behavior and to lead eco-friendly activities that can truly contribute to carbon neutrality. The green taxonomy is a compound word of green and taxonomy. It is a system for classifying which industries are eco-friendly and a criterion for determining whether an industry is eligible for green investment support.
Korea also established a Korean Green Taxonomy(K-Taxonomy) in accordance with the <Environmental Technology and Environmental Industry Support Act> amended on April 13, 2021 by referring to the EU’s green taxonomy, and in Dec. 2021, announced the Korean Green Taxonomy Guideline. In the guideline revised in Dec. 2022, the Ministry of Environment commented about the background of the establishment of the K-Taxonomy, “Due to COVID-19, many countries are introducing various policies for green recovery, and as a result, large-scale funds are expected to flow into green economic activities. In this process, damage represented by greenwashing due to excessive and false information may occur, so it is necessary to prepare standards to suppress it.”
Kim Na-seung, deputy director of the Green Transition Policy Division of the Ministry of Environment, who is in charge of the K-Taxonomy policy, said “The K-Taxonomy stipulates four standards for what eco-friendly economic activities are. The first is the activity standard, which determines whether the economic activity meets the proposed classification. The second is the accreditation standard, which determines whether it meets the technical standards for achieving environmental goals. The third is an exclusion standard, which determines whether or not it meets the criterion for determining serious environmental damage. The fourth is the protection standard, which determines whether or not laws such as human rights and labor are violated. The K-Taxonomy stipulates that all four criteria mentioned above must be satisfied in order for a specific economic activity to be recognized as eco-friendly. In the absence of such clear standards, companies may arbitrarily advertise that they are conducting eco-friendly activities even though they are not eco-friendly. The K-Taxonomy can contribute to preventing this greenwashing.” However, the current K-Taxonomy is less detailed than the EU in some areas. For example, in the field of product manufacturing buildings, Korea stipulates standards only for the introduction of facilities, whereas the EU specifies standards for maintenance activities after installation. In order for the K-Taxonomy to continuously develop to prevent greenwashing, the standards must be more sophisticated than now.
K-Taxonomy needs to be supplemented because the current standard is not precise. Therefore, since greenwashing can occur in the regulatory blind spot of K-Taxonomy, it is necessary for consumers to make individual efforts to identify eco-friendly products. Prof. Lee Eun-hee of the Dept. of consumer science at Inha University said, “There are not many ways consumers can distinguish greenwashing. However, consumers need to try to distinguish the eco-friendly of the products. Wise consumers check certification marks as a way to determine if there is a basis for a packaging that claims to be eco-friendly.”
The certification mark means environmental labeling displayed by the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute based on the eco-label certification system. The eco-label certification organized by the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute is given when the environmental quality of the product is improved compared to other products for the same purpose. Moon Gwang-don, a former senior researcher who was in charge of eco-label certification examinations at the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute’s eco-label certification office, said through the official blog of the Ministry of Environment in November 2020, “Eco-label certification examines every process of acquiring raw materials, manufacturing, using, distributing, and disposing of products. In addition, it checks parts that can cause environmental problems. Customers can trust and buy the products that have received eco-label certification because they have undergone rigorous verification in many areas.”
In that case, are products that have not received eco-label certification not eco-friendly? Not necessarily. According to the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute’s Environmental Indication and Advertising Q&A Collection Document, even products that have not received major environmental label certification can be recognized as eco-friendly products if overall environmental properties are improved by considering the entire process compared to other products with the same purpose. However, specific and scientific evidence to prove this must be supported. In reality, it is not easy to prove environmental improvement based on concrete evidence for products that have not received eco-label certification. So if there is a phrase claiming eco-friendliness on the packaging of these products, consumers need to question whether the claim is true by looking for evidence.
Professor Lee Eun-hee said, “It is useful to find many cases of unfair environmental indication and advertising by companies as another way for consumers to distinguish greenwashing.” There are four types of unfair environmental indication and advertising by companies: lie/exaggeration, deception, unfair comparison, and slander. As an example of one type of deception, there is a product packaging that advertises itself as “phthalate-free, KC-certified eco-friendly product.” It is advertised as an eco-friendly product based on the KC mark, which is a statutory mandatory certification system. So, this is a deceptive sign targeting consumers who are not familiar with the KC mark. In addition, if an absolute expression like ‘first’ is used without an objective basis, such as ‘Korea’s first eco-friendly product’, this is an unfair comparison advertisement. The Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute’s green product information system homepage has detailed examples of the above four types. What consumers need to check by type is also introduced in detail. Therefore, consumers can develop an eye for distinguishing greenwashing by referring to the green product information system and analyzing cases.
The ministry of Environment plans to revise the ⸢Environmental Technology Industry Act⸥ during the first half of this year so that companies can be fined up to 3 million won in case of violation of environmental indication and advertising regulations. In order to prevent companies from greenwashing, government policies such as strengthening the level of sanctions and K-Taxonomy are essential, but efforts to distinguish eco-friendly products from consumers are also important. After reading this article, the CBT reporter hopes that readers will pay attention to and think about the problem of greenwashing.
By Kim Chan-ju | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Choi Jin-hyeok | email@example.com