World IP Day 2024 - IP and the Sustainable Development Goals

Posted on April 24, 2024

We work with clients from a wide range of sectors and, in recent years, our trade mark attorneys have seen increasing activities in areas connected with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production.

Our team has helped protect brands for a wide range of products and services including electric vehicles, battery technology, water treatment, anaerobic digesters and even (my personal favourite!) biodegradable coffins, and the new ideas just keep coming.

The trend is inescapable - the EU Intellectual Property Office has for several years been analysing the data around the filing of trade mark applications as an indicator of innovation relating to environmental protection. One study analysed the goods and services covered by all EU Trade Mark Applications filed since the Office opened in 1996, using an algorithm to identify terms relating to environmental protection and sustainability, with examples including “photovoltaic”, “solar heating” and “recycling”. The study found that a growing interest in sustainability is reflected in the EUTMs filed at the EUIPO, with the absolute number, and the share, of “green EU Trade Marks” having increased significantly since 1996.

The flip side of this trend is the temptation for brand owners to jump on the “green” bandwagon, and to use branding and get-up that implies that their products are more ethical, environmentally friendly or sustainable than they really are. Offering “green” goods can be very good for business, as customer demand for sustainable or ethical products has increased, but it is important that the public are able to trust the claims made. The EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), implemented in the UK by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, prohibits use of misleading indications in trade. Whilst the UCPD does not provide specific rules on environmental claims, it provides a legal basis to ensure that traders do not present environmental claims in ways that are unfair to consumers. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published a Green Claims Code, which provides some guidance to help businesses comply with the advertising regulations. Environmental claims which are false, misleading, overstated or unsubstantiated (often referred to as ‘greenwashing’) are generally prohibited. Brand owners should bear this in mind when designing their brand identity and packaging. An environmental claim can be misleading if it deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer, even if the information is factually correct. The guidance suggests that imagery and overall product presentation should be a truthful and accurate representation of the scale of the environmental benefit, and should not overstate the benefit achieved.

It is in everyone’s interests for businesses to invest in sustainability and improved environmental performance, and to be able to communicate those efforts to consumers transparently, without having to compete with those relying on misleading claims. And it is encouraging to see authorities like the European Commission, the CMA and EU Intellectual Property Office taking an interest in encouraging and supporting those positive developments.

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