Woolworths Eco-Fail – Misleading Consumers

Woolworths is facing a potential $1.1 million penalty for allegedly making false, misleading or deceptive claims about its Select Eco range of disposable bowls, plates and cutlery.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has taken action against Woolworths in the federal court, alleging that the environmental representations Woolworths made about its W Select Eco picnic products were” false, misleading or deceptive” – conduct ruled illegal under Australian Consumer Law.

From November 2014 to November 2017, Woolworths labelled disposable bowls, plates and cutlery in its W Select Eco line as ‘Biodegradable and Compostable’. The ACCC alleges that by these labels, Woolworths represented to consumers that the products would biodegrade and compost within a reasonable period of time when disposed of in domestic compost bins or conventional landfill sites in Australia.

The ACCC alleges, however, that Woolworths failed to make reasonable or adequate efforts to substantiate these biodegradability and compostability claims.

“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,” explains ACCC commissioner Sarah Court.

“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,” says Court.

“Despite all these matters, Woolworths made the representations without explanation or qualification.”

The ACCC also alleges that Woolworths acted contrary to 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.

“Businesses making environmental claims about their products must take reasonable steps to ensure the benefits are achievable for ordinary Australian consumers,” explains Court. The ACCC says it’s is seeking pecuniary penalties, injunctions, declarations, publication orders and costs.

Woolworths charges more per Eco plate compared to its less expensive Essential range. A 10 pack of Eco plates costs $4, while a 20 pack of Essential plates costs $3 – a difference of 25 cents more per Eco plate, according to Choice.

“Customers paid a premium because they rightfully thought the environmental claims would have been substantiated,” adds Court.

Woolworths says its Eco products are manufactured from materials derived from corn starch, sugarcane and other natural materials.

“Following enquiries from the ACCC, we took the precautionary step of voluntarily withdrawing the products from sale in November 2017 so that we could carefully consider the concerns raised,” a Woolworths spokesperson told Choice.

“We are now in the process of reviewing the ACCC’s claims and considering our next steps.”

The supermarket sold these products in packaging that did not substantiate the environmental claims for three years, until they were removed from shelves in November 2017.

Woolworths faces a maximum penalty of $1.1 million if it is found guilty.

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