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Canada’s consumer watchdog has ideas about how to crack down on greenwashing | CBC News

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The head of Canada’s competition bureau, which regulates misleading marketing, wants more power from the federal government to tackle claims about companies’ environmental commitments.

Competition commissioner Matthew Boswell recently sent a letter to MPs and senators asking them to consider how to strengthen rules governing greenwashing, which is when a company makes misleading or unsupported statements to appear more environmentally friendly than it is.

Bill C-59, which was tabled last November and is making its way through Parliament, would require businesses that claim a product has environmental benefits to back up their statements with “an adequate and proper test.” 

Boswell suggested that proposal could be expanded outside of just products to also include “environmental claims about a business or brand as a whole” to reflect many of the more general greenwashing complaints the bureau receives.

As an example, he mentioned companies claiming to go “net zero” or “carbon neutral by 2030.”

Such claims can be difficult to put to a test, he said, but businesses “should at least be able to substantiate them if challenged.” 

The 12-page letter, which includes a number of suggestions on improving the Competition Act, was first reported on by the National Observer

The commissioner’s comments echo concerns from climate activists, who have argued that Bill C-59’s proposed changes don’t go far enough in regulating environmental claims.

They pointed to the European Union as an example of a jurisdiction that is going further. Under proposed EU legislation, terms like “environmentally friendly,” “natural,” “biodegradable” and “climate neutral” would be prohibited — unless a company can offer proof.

‘Too narrowly focused’

Canada’s Competition Bureau is investigating several cases of alleged greenwashing by Canadian corporations. 

Those include one for Enbridge Gas, for presenting natural gas as a low-carbon, cost-effective way for Ontarians to heat their homes, and another into Pathways Alliance, a lobby group representing major oil producers, for its “Let’s clear the air” ad campaign.

Those were launched in response to complaints from advocacy groups Environmental Defence and Greenpeace, respectively.

In a statement, Enbridge said it is “committed to co-operating with the Competition Bureau,” but declined to comment on the specifics. Pathways Alliance did not respond. Neither case has been settled.

People in costumes and holding placards take part in a demonstration on a city street.
Activists take part in a demonstration against greenwashing at a climate summit in Glasgow 2021. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

Critics say the current process is ineffective and slow-moving. Matt Hulse, a lawyer with the environmental law non-profit Ecojustice, said Boswell’s recommendations show “he recognizes that greenwashing is an important issue that the current Competition Act is not able to adequately address.”

Ecojustice has filed several complaints with the bureau.

Hulse added he’d like to see legislation go further, by requiring companies to make the proof about their environmental claims publicly available, “ideally at the point of purchase — to allow consumers and others to check the truthfulness of their claims.”

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, which oversees the Competition Bureau, did not return a request for comment Wednesday. A spokesperson told the National Observer that the government is committed to fighting greenwashing and will take Boswell’s recommendations into consideration.

NDP wants to go further

Earlier this year, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus tabled a private member’s bill that would ban what the party called misleading fossil fuel advertising, similar to how cigarette ads were restricted in the 1990s. 

Julia Levin, an associate director with Environmental Defence, supports that step. But she said Boswell’s proposed changes would, for now, provide “additional tools to fight greenwashing.”

“We need to take what we did for tobacco and do it for oil and gas,” she said. “But in the meantime, companies should not be allowed to run misinformation campaigns without any kind of public response or scrutiny or accountability.”

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