Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Packaging Awards Do Not Insulate Companies from Greenwashing Litigation

Just in case you thought that winning an award for your new environmentally-friendly packaging would insulate your company from a greenwashing complaint – better think again.  In the EU, DANNON Yogurt introduced its Activia product in a container labeled with the phrase (in German) "new environmentally-friendly tub":
Danone’s “Green” PLA Packaging

Danone is the French food-product giant that is best known here as the maker of Dannon Yogurt.  Danone released its packaging in the EU with pride in the summer of 2011.  According to Danone, the packaging was developed after “years of research and work” and is made from renewable resources, with less raw material use, less CO2 emissions, and less end-of-life waste generated.  The editors of Bioplastics Magazine bestowed their Annual Global Bioplastics Award to Danone for using the packaging for its yogurt products.  More on the award can be found here.

The German Greenwashing Lawsuit

Danone’s inclusion on the packaging of the phrase "new environmentally-friendly tub" raised the ire of a German environmental organization, known as DUH, which promptly filed a complaint against Danone in the Munich District Court.  DUH's accusations of greenwashing by Danone centered on two supposed environmental deficiencies of the packaging: (1) the new packaging is not recyclable; and (2) the packaging did not represent an environmentally-discernible improvement over Danone's predecessor polystyrene packaging because it was made from genetically-modified corn – an environmental no-no in DUH's estimation.

The Settlement

While Danone initially denied all the charges and argued that its environmental claims were supported by solid research, it just last week agreed to a settlement with DUH.

As part of the settlement, Danone has agreed to replace the allegedly offending claim on the packaging, immediately remove all existing references from its websites, and also remove all instances of the offending packaging from store shelves by year's-end.  Not surprisingly, both sides claim a form of moral victory.  On the one hand, Danone stands by its packaging and expressed displeasure at the "uncalled-for public discussion" spurred by DUH's complaint.  DUH, on the other hand, hailed its "great success" in securing the settlement and in securing what it felt was an admission by Danone that it had engaged in greenwashing.


Whether one agrees with Danone or DUH, this episode should serve as a cautionary tale for companies around the globe that are enthusiastic about promoting the environmental benefits of a new product or service - especially in an environment where the watchdogs won’t be distracted by glittery awards.  There are many eyes looking for examples of greenwashing, be they organizations like DUH, public agencies, or activist consumers – and examples of legal enforcement are sure to increase because of that scrutiny.

Author:  Gaston Kroub