Be careful what claims you make is the lesson Woolworths is taking on board, as it faces court action for allegedly misleading customers about the eco-friendly credentials of certain products.
The ACCC is taking the supermarket giant to the Federal Court after alleging that its W Select eco line of disposable plates, bowls and cutlery are not as “biodegradable and compostable” as customers are led to believe.
The products were released in 2014 and are made from derivatives of corn starch or sugarcane, among other materials.
According to the competition regulator, Woolworths implies the products will compost and biodegrade in a reasonable time period in either landfill or a compost bin, but there is little to substantiate these claims.
“Customers paid a premium because they rightfully thought the environmental claims would have been substantiated,” ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said.
“The ACCC also alleges that Woolworths made these claims in circumstances where it was aware there was confusion among consumers and businesses about the meaning of biodegradable and compostable.
“One of the suppliers of the W Select eco line also had significant qualifications on its website about the biodegradability and compostability of its products.”
Woolworths is also accused of breaching its own Environmental Claims Policy, which states that “Environmental claims must be accurate, specific and clear; apply to a real environmental benefit; not overstate a benefit and be articulated in plain language”.
Ms Court said that consumers must have faith that what they are paying for is what they are actually receiving.
“Businesses making environmental claims about their products must take reasonable steps to ensure the benefits are achievable for ordinary Australian consumers,” the ACCC Commissioner said.
A spokesperson for Woolworths said that the retailer withdrew the products from sale “voluntarily” in November 2017 while it investigated the ACCC’s concerns.
“At Woolworths, we’re committed to doing the right thing for the environment and continue to work hard to drive initiatives that help both us and our customers minimise our impact on the environment,” the spokesperson said.
“We treat our obligations under the Australian Consumer Law very seriously and understand how important it is that environmental claims are clear and accurate for our customers.”
Woolworths is currently considering how it will proceed following the ACCC’s legal push.