Unilever investigated over ‘greenwashing’ claims

Dove soaps boxes in a spotlight
Dove soaps boxes in a spotlight

Unilever, the owner of Dove and Lynx, is being investigated into claims of “greenwashing” amid concerns it may be misleading shoppers.

Britain’s competition watchdog said it will scrutinse environmental claims made by Unilever about its household brands, which include Cif, Comfort and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

Unilever is one of Britain’s biggest food and household goods manufacturers and is known for promoting its “social purpose”.

However, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) said statements and language used to promise the environmental impact of its products were often vague and could be misleading.

It added that claims about some ingredients were presented in a way “that may exaggerate how ‘natural’ the product is, and so may create an inaccurate or misleading impression”.

The CMA also raised concerns over imagery on Unilever brands, which it said could create the “impression that some products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are”.

A bottle of Unilever’s Cif Cleanboost, for instance, carries an image of a green leaf on its packaging, although the watchdog did not single out any brands in Tuesday’s announcement.

Sarah Cardell, chief executive of the CMA, said: “More and more people are trying to do their bit to help protect the environment, but we’re worried many are being misled by so-called ‘green’ products that aren’t what they seem.

“So far, the evidence we’ve seen has raised concerns about how Unilever presents certain products as environmentally friendly. We’ll be drilling down into these claims to see if they measure up. If we find they’re greenwashing, we’ll take action to make sure shoppers are protected.”

If the watchdog decides Unilever has misled consumers, it could demand a change to its marketing or launch legal action against the business.

It is the latest blow for the company, which has been criticised over the past year for focusing too much on ethical issues rather than profits.

Terry Smith, one of Britain’s most prominent investors, said in 2022 that Unilever had “lost the plot” by trying to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

The business, which owns around 400 brands including Marmite, Ben & Jerry’s and Knorr stock cubes, has made “social purpose” a core focus in recent years.

New chief executive Hein Schumacher has signalled he will water down the company’s stance on social issues after admitting in October that the company had “under-delivered” on growth.

“I believe that a social and environmental purpose is not something that we should force-fit on every brand,” he said, marking a cultural shift with predecessor Alan Jope.

Clive Black, director at Shore Capital, said: “The devil is always in the detail, but the fact Unilever has been associated with greenwashing is a real downer for the company.

“If there is substance to what the CMA is suggesting, that is going to be a running sore for Unilever. I think there will be some investors who will see this and feel great angst.

“The majority of investors want Unilever to do what it’s supposed to do, and that’s the businesses run properly to generate sustainable sales, margins, cash flows, and earnings that deliver rising dividends. That is the bottom line.”

Unilever said it was “surprised and disappointed with the CMA’s announcement” as it rejected the idea that any of its claims were misleading.

A spokesman said: “Unilever is committed to making responsible claims about the benefits of our products on our packs and to these being transparent and clear, and we have robust processes in place to make sure any claims can be substantiated.

“We will continue to cooperate with the CMA and fully comply with further requests for information.”

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