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Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz
Rebecca Schulz | David J. Climenhaga

Alberta Government Fights to Protect Corporations’ Freedom To Lie To Consumers

The Alberta government opposes Bill C-59’s rules requiring honesty in advertising. Rules that require companies to back up their green claims

The news is filled with controversies–how to end the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, students’ rights to protest, and how to respond to fires, heat domes and water shortages.  

But we’ll bet here’s something that you may not have heard of.

A section of Federal Bill C-59 proposes that companies that claim their products have minimal environmental or climate impact provide information to support their claims. 

Basically, truth in advertising… Don’t ‘greenwash’ your company’s claims, and don’t lie to Canadians.

Seems like a good idea to us. 

We all want to know the truth about the impact of the products we use and what companies are doing or not doing as far as environmental protection

Alberta Freaks Out Again

Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz and Premier Danielle Smith | Alberta.ca
Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz and Premier Danielle Smith | Alberta.ca

Like all things proposed by the feds that affect Alberta, Smith’s government was pissed off.

Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz was quick on the jump.

In an impassioned speech, she called the bill an “undemocratic gag order” and “snuck in the back door” that “must be stopped.”

She said, “Any company not willing to risk millions of dollars in fines and legal fees will be forced to stay silent.”

These are some pretty fear-inducing words, and since not much information is being publicized about this Bill, we thought a closer look was in order.

So, let’s break it down.

Details, Details

Bill C-59 would change the federal Competition Act to allow financial penalties (fines) to companies in several circumstances.

  1. If they’ve engaged in a tax avoidance transaction while failing to disclose it to the Minister.
  2. Claiming a Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Investment Tax Credit or a Clean Technology Investment Tax Credit at the regular tax credit rate while failing to meet labour requirements.
  3. Failing to meet specific reporting and disclosure requirements required under the Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Investment Tax Credit scheme.

It also allows companies to be sued more easily for “misleading” ad campaigns.

At its core, Bill C-59 seeks to address the rampant issue of “greenwashing” in Canada.

“Greenwashing” is the term coined for exaggerated or misleading marketing or tax claims about the environmental impacts of projects or products.

Essentially, lying about your actions to make your company look “greener” or providing misleading information on how much of an impact a project will have environmentally.

Bill C-59 was tabled last fall, and amendments to a “misleading environmental benefits” provision were made to it before it was recently brought back to Parliament.

Maybe that’s what Schultz refers to when she says it was “snuck in the back door?”

Freedom To Lie?

This provision’s impact on “free speech” seems to be what Schultz worries most about.

But she has mistakenly interpreted our right to free speech for actions without consequences.

We’ve long had regulations to prevent companies of all sectors from using false or “misleading” marketing.

It’s a fundamental tenet of securities law, competition law, and public protection.

Why? 

Well, it’s pretty straightforward. Companies shouldn’t get away with tricking their investors, shareholders, or the public by telling fibs, only half the truth, or conveniently leaving out vital info.

As Susan Wright, a lawyer who wrote a separate breakdown of Bill C-59, wrote.

“Not once in my entire legal career has a CEO complained that the process of complying with the obligation to be truthful is akin to ‘an undemocratic gag order.’ It’s simply part of doing business.”

Minister Schultz, however, seems concerned that these new fines will halt all “green” marketing and force industries to “stay silent.” 

And she’s quite right. Fines should make them think twice about using ‘free speech’ to lie.

However, Minister Schultz was just ‘fear-mongering’ when she wrote that the bill “threatened fines and jail time for Canada’s oil and gas industry if they tried to defend their record on the environment.”

Nothing in Bill C-59 prevents industry from defending its environmental record anytime it wants to.

Any “green” marketing they do will be successful as long as they can back up their claims. 

And consumers would be thrilled to learn about legitimate greening efforts.

Image showing the greenwashing concept
Do Albertans want to protect corporations’ freedom to lie to consumers, or do we want the freedom to know the truth? | Canva

So Why The Dramatics?

Many companies aren’t thrilled to have their advertising constrained to what they can prove they’re doing.

Pathways Alliance is one organization lobbying politicians to speak up against Bill C-59.

Pathways is a coalition of mostly foreign-owned oil companies that comprise the sixth largest and most profitable oil sand producers. 

They are known for their striking advertising methods; you’d likely recognize them from billboards, TV, Radio, and bus adverts about making oilsands “Net-Zero.”

The Competition Bureau is investigating them for potentially misleading advertising practices, so it makes sense that Bill C-59 might raise their hackles.

They have already been exposed for selling bogus carbon credits.

A recent peer-reviewed study pointed out several instances where Pathways engaged in various forms of greenwashing, including selective disclosure, misaligned claims, and inadequate reporting.

Pamela Wallin, who leads the Senate Banking Committee, contacted the Competition Bureau on behalf of the Pathways to oppose C-59.

Given this background, it’s fair to question Pathways Alliance’s motives in discussing this truth-in-advertising legislation.

It seems odd, to say the least, that our Environment Minister is so vocally opposed to a Bill that quite simply requires companies to tell the truth about the environmental standards they set for themselves.

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