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Policy & Regulation Sustainability Ad Spend

France’s leading greenwashing laws could go wider – global brands should be anxious

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By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

February 9, 2023 | 7 min read

Brands operating in France are now required to be more transparent about their green claims. Does this spell the end for greenwashing?

Paris, France, Greenwashing legislation

Failure to comply with new greenwashing law is punishable by €100,000 / Unsplash

The French government has taken a leading stance against greenwashing. In 2022, it became the first country to ban fossil fuel advertising altogether. Now high-carbon industries must carry tobacco-style warnings encouraging people to travel by more sustainable methods.

In the consumer goods categories, it has progressed beyond the self-regulation and non-legally binding guidelines that are common in the UK and much of Europe. All advertisers in France are now required by law to prove their green claims publicly or face a financial penalty.

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But against the backdrop of encroaching deadlines for EU climate targets like the Green Deal, as well as the stirrings of a union-wide legislative crackdown, France’s overhaul is likely just the beginning of a turning tide against greenwashing.

“Brands have every reason to be anxious,” says Grégoire Mulot, manager of the Paris-based sustainability strategy firm, Frog. “It’s certainly not going to be business as usual.”

What’s changing for greenwashing brands?

Early last year, France set the tone for its push towards more sustainable advertising with a mandate that car ads must include a disclaimer that walking or cycling is better for the environment.

In August, it went on to make history as the first nation to ban fossil fuel advertising, with firms that fail to comply facing fines of up to €100,000. This ban does come with caveats - as it does not stipulate against ads on gas, nor does it prevent fossil fuel sponsorship and financial advertising on fossil fuel products. NGOs like Greenpeace France have spoken out about this and are currently urging the government to become more stringent.

From 2023, France brought in legislation against greenwashing – specifically clamping down on terminology like ‘carbon neutral’.

Under the Climate and Resilience Law, France now prohibits companies from claiming in an ad that their products or services are carbon neutral (or similar equivalents such as zero carbon or fully offset) unless they provide the following information:

  • A Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions report integrating the direct and indirect emissions of their products or services

  • The process by which the GHG emissions of their products or services are: avoided, reduced, or (offset and the plan for GHG emissions reduction).

  • The methods for offsetting residual GHG emissions that comply with minimum standards.

Like the fossil fuel ad ban, failure to comply is punishable by up to €100,000 for repeat offenders.

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By comparison, in the UK, the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) requires under the Green Claims Code that businesses comply with any sector or product-specific laws. They must also ensure they are complying with consumer protection law obligations and refrain from making false or deceptive claims – but they are not obliged to make that information public, nor do they face financial penalization, unless taken to legal court by a third party, such as an NGO.

When questioned whether France’s motion could trigger more stringent action across the channel, Brinsley Dresden a partner and advertising specialist at law firm, Lewis Silkin, told The Drum, “it’s not inconceivable, though at the moment it’s more likely UK regulation will come on a sector-level, such as the automotive industry no longer being able to advertise petrol vehicles,” sooner than a legal crackdown on terminology.

For advertisers in France (and indeed the rest of the EU if the pending draft bill is pushed through) they will have no choice.

The Drum reached out to a number of agencies for comment on how these changes might affect major UK brands with a presence in France – but was told they were hesitant to speak on behalf of their clients.

Mulot says “as a citizen and a consumer” this progress is good news. “As someone who used to work in advertising and is now a strategist, the opportunities are exciting as it only broadens the work we do,” but adds that brands now face significant challenges in communicating their sustainability claims accurately and backing them with genuine action.

“We desperately need competent people to do this work,” he says, advocating for agencies and brands to build sustainability into the core of what they do – rather than only focussing on the communications aspect.

Furthermore, he says, we need the communications industry to push people towards greener industries and choices “it will offer them an opportunity to go further than legislation, and really put their money where their mouth is.”

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