“Sustainability” is often too vague a term in marketing – Consumer Ombudsman investigates label claims on Aino ice cream packaging

Marketing a product as sustainable requires comprehensive grounds and accurate information to support the claim. The term “sustainable” was used too generally in the marketing of Aino ice cream, and various environmental impacts were highlighted in a misleading manner. The ice cream manufacturer Froneri Finland has promised to correct its marketing statements at the request of the Consumer Ombudsman.

”Companies must be extremely cautious when using sustainability-related or environmental claims. Positive efforts may, of course, be highlighted in marketing, but everyone must follow the same rules so that there is no room for greenwashing.”

Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen

In the marketing of Aino ice cream, the Consumer Ombudsman paid particular attention to general claims on more sustainable packaging. In addition, the marketing materials included several claims on the environmental impacts of Aino ice cream packages, such as reduced carbon footprint and carbon dioxide emissions, reduced use of fossil raw materials, and the use of bio-based packaging material.

In addition to the ice cream packages themselves, these marketing claims were presented at least on the Pingviini website, on several TV channels, on the front page of Helsingin Sanomat, on Aino ice cream’s own social media channels, and on the accounts of several social media influencers.

According to a report issued by Froneri Finland, the environmental claims were based on a comparison between the new packaging and the previous Aino ice cream packaging. Previously, the packaging was made of plastic from fossil sources, whereas the new packaging is made from partially renewable raw materials.

Froneri Finland undertook to correct its marketing statements as required by the Consumer Ombudsman, and according to the company, this will be visible in the Aino ice cream packaging by the end of the year.

Impacts on the environment must be reported accurately – “sustainability” as a term is particularly ambiguous

The claims concerning the sustainability of Aino ice cream packaging were too generalised, as there were no additional specifications within or near the claims to further clarify their meaning. Therefore, the consumers were given too extensive an idea of the product’s sustainability. The Consumer Ombudsman emphasises that sustainability as a concept is ambiguous, and there is no established definition or content specification available.

”In addition to environmental factors, sustainability may even be associated, for example, with social or economic issues. Moreover, the different sectors of sustainability can be assessed from various perspectives. Consumers cannot be assumed to know whether a sustainability claim specifically refers to environmental factors, and if so, which particular aspect is in question.”

Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen

According to the EU Commission’s guidelines, environmental claims are likely to be misleading if they contain vague and general statements of environmental benefits without appropriate evidence of the benefit and without indicating to which aspect the claim refers. Such claims include, among others, “environmentally friendly”, “ecological”, “green”, “biodegradable”, “zero-emission”, “carbon-neutral”, and “climate-neutral”, and even broader terms such as “aware” and “sustainable”.

In the view of the Consumer Ombudsman, “sustainable” as an unspecified expression can only be used in rare cases where the product being marketed is demonstrably more sustainable than other products offered by the company or its competitors, when analysed from all perspectives and with consideration for the entire life cycle of the product. Moreover, a general and vague expression may be permitted in marketing if it is immediately specified in the same context, leaving consumers with a realistic overall impression.

Environmental impacts of the packaging were marketed too broadly

The marketing of Aino ice cream involved several claims related to reducing the carbon footprint and carbon dioxide emissions. According to the manufacturer’s own report, the claims only referred to the environmental impacts of the material used in the manufacture of the packaging. However, the environmental impacts of packaging are not solely limited to the material. Instead, environmental impacts are also generated, for example, in the transport of the material for further processing and in the manufacturing process itself. In this case, the marketing message gave the impression that the claims concerned the entire packaging. Therefore, significant information was omitted, creating a misleading image of the actual environmental impacts.

Another problem was the claim on reducing the use of fossil raw materials. Any such factual claims must always be verified. However, Froneri Finland did not provide the Consumer Ombudsman with any evidence that would verify the claim of reducing the use of fossil raw materials in Aino ice cream packaging.

Use of bio-based products is no guarantee of lower environmental impacts

The term “bio-based packaging” was used in the marketing of Aino ice cream, but only some of the marketing materials indicated that, in fact, 90% of the packaging material was bio-based and the remaining 10% consisted of polyethylene, which is a fossil raw material. In other words, the marketing efforts created a misleading impression of the packaging being entirely bio-based.

Furthermore, in the marketing of Aino ice cream, the use of bio-based plastic was represented as a means of reducing the environmental load. The marketing claims stated, for example, as follows (Free translation of the marketing material): “Aino ice cream protects the delicacy of nature and strives to reduce the environmental load. That is why Aino ice cream is now available in new bio-based packaging.”

The Consumer Ombudsman noted that the use of bio-based raw materials does not automatically lead to a comprehensively reduced environment load in comparison to fossil-based raw materials. While the carbon footprint of the production of bio-based materials is generally smaller than that of fossil-based or oil-based materials, bio-based materials have a more significant impact in terms of water footprint, nutrient load, acidification, and land use.

It is permitted to mention the use of bio-based packaging in marketing claims, but the claims may not create a misleading impression of the environmental impacts of bio-based products. The report submitted by Froneri Finland to the Consumer Ombudsman did not indicate that the total environmental impacts of the bio-based material would have, at least in this case, been any smaller than those of the fossil-based material.

Private eco-labels can be misleading

The marketing materials of Aino ice cream included a green label with a leaf symbol and the text: “More sustainable packaging+” (Vastuullisempi pakkaus+). The Consumer Ombudsman observed that the label looked very similar to several eco-labels. It was not embedded in the rest of the text or images on the package, but it was introduced as a separate and independent part similar to a stamp. In its report, Froneri Finland stated that the “More sustainable packaging+” leaf label was developed by the company itself.

“Privately created environmental labels are not prohibited as such, but they must not create an impression of being general eco-labels issued by a third party based on established criteria.”

Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen

The Consumer Ombudsman demanded that, in the future, Froneri Finland will not use the privately developed eco-label in its marketing, unless it is immediately made clear that this is the company’s own label.

Stricter regulation ahead on environmental marketing

The Consumer Ombudsman recalls that the new EU directives will impose stricter requirements on environmental marketing. In March 2022, the European Commission presented a proposal for a new directive on empowering consumers for the green transition, aimed at combating greenwashing and promoting the use of more specific environmental claims instead of misleading generalisations.

In March 2023, the Commission put forward a proposal for a directive on green claims, stating that environmental claims presented to consumers should be verified by a third party. Moreover, the entire life cycle and all significant environmental impacts of the product should be considered in the claims. Furthermore, there would be minimum requirements for eco-labelling schemes, and only the use of EU-wide, approved eco-labels would be allowed.