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Greenwashing: Is your business doing sustainable advertising correctly?

Posted on 13 December 2021

As pressure to curb climate change grows, consumers are increasingly looking to reduce their negative impact on the planet. Responding to this consumer shift, brands are looking at ways to promote the green credentials of their products or services. In some cases, however, this can lead to unsubstantiated or misleading claims in advertising and marketing materials – a practice known as 'greenwashing'. Indeed, in one study conducted earlier this year, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimated that up to 40% of environmental claims are potentially misleading.

Cases of greenwashing

The steady increase of businesses seeking to burnish their eco-credentials has inevitably led to an increase in complaints made to the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

In a ruling last month, the ASA upheld a complaint against a company who provide bespoke recipe boxes. The company had claimed in several Instagram posts that its product packaging was "plastic free" and contained "zero plastic". A complaint was raised which argued that the packaging actually contained a plastic lining making it difficult to recycle. As the advertising claim could not be substantiated, the ASA found that the ads breached the Codes. The decision emphasises that before 'green' claims are made, brands must hold documentary evidence to back them up. Without such evidence, the ASA is very likely to find that the claims made are misleading.

In another recent ruling, plant based milk supplier Alpro received a complaint against its advertising claims which stated that its products were "GOOD FOR THE PLANET" and "GOOD FOR YOU". Despite Alpro's response providing substantial evidence that plant based milk is better for the environment than cow's milk, the ASA upheld the complaint. It was determined that "little context" was provided for the basis of the advertising claims and as a result it was unclear whether the claim was asserting plant based milk production had a "net positive environmental benefit" or was less detrimental than its dairy equivalents.

Last year, the airline Ryanair was also found to be in breach of the Codes. Ryanair had claimed that they were Europe's "Lowest Emissions Airline" and that Ryanair was a "low CO2 emissions airline". The complainant challenged whether these advertising claims were misleading or capable of being substantiated. Regarding the first claim, the ASA deemed that Ryanair had not provided sufficient information about the basis of the claim. Consumers were not told about the role seating density played in calculations, and several well-known competitors had been excluded from the comparison. In the latter claim, whilst the ASA felt Ryanair's metric for determining CO2 emissions was acceptable, Ryanair didn't provide clear detail as to how such figures were calculated and as a result consumers would be vulnerable to being misled. Therefore, the complaint was upheld against all claims.

Also last year, an ad by Shell containing the claim "Drive carbon neutral using Shell Go+" was held to be misleading. The advertising claim concerned a loyalty scheme through the Shell app where Shell would offset carbon emissions for purchases of fuel through the Shell Go+ app. The ASA felt the claim could be interpreted by consumers as Shell Go+ being a fuel, rather than a loyalty scheme. The fact Shell failed to make clear that Shell Go+ was an app and not a fuel in the ad led the ASA to conclude the ad was misleading.

In another interesting case, the ASA investigated an advertising claim by pet product company Ancol which stated that: "Refill Poop Bag Rolls...These thick waste bags are biodegradable to lessen your dog's impact on the environment". In this case, the ASA consulted The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and independent advisors to learn more about biodegradable plastics, and found that whilst the plastics used in the bags could biodegrade, it was only in particular environments. For example, the bag would biodegrade if left outside but would have no environmental benefit if disposed of in a bin. Therefore, given that most responsible consumers were likely to dispose of the bag in a bin, the bag was no more beneficial for the environment than a conventional plastic dog waste bag. Consequently, the claim was found misleading due to this significant omission.

New CAP guidance and ASA review

To combat the increase of greenwashing, and recognising that ad regulation needs to play its part in working towards agreed climate goals, on 9 December 2021, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) published new guidance to help advertisers understand and apply the existing advertising code rules on misleading environmental claims and social responsibility. The guidance gives an overview of the relevant rules and helpfully provides advertisers with some practical examples of ad claims that may be problematic by reference to previous rulings.

This new guidance follows an in-depth review conducted by the ASA in September, which looked at whether its rules and guidance on environmental claims were fit for purpose. The findings revealed that, although sufficient and comprehensive rules are already in place to tackle misleading and socially irresponsible ads about the environment, the issues encountered in this area can be complex and hard to navigate, and more guidance was therefore needed. After publishing the new CAP guidance, the ASA will now commence a series of enquiries into specific issues starting with the Climate Change Committee’s identified priority areas requiring carbon reduction. These include: aviation, cars, waste, animal-based foods and heating. They also plan to commission research into carbon neutral, net zero and hybrid claims to work out what consumers understand those terms to mean.

Shining a brighter regulatory spotlight

Of course, there are plenty of examples of compliant environmental advertising and, even in the above cases, generally speaking the products were intended to be better for the planet. However, these decisions highlight that making environmental claims is a technical area that requires sufficient clarity and substantiation to support the claims made. Simply wanting to do the right thing does not absolve brands of the responsibility of making their claims clear. The ASA is increasingly vigilant when it comes to tackling unsubstantiated and misleading environmental claims in ads and has stated publically it intends to shine a "brighter regulatory spotlight" on environmental ads going forward.

Expectations for businesses to play a more prominent role in encouraging responsible consumer consumption behaviours will only continue to rise and as a result, we are likely to see more ad campaigns going forward which refer to the green credentials of products or services. It is therefore vital that brands are supported to get their environmental messages right. They should pay close attention to the new CAP guidance and any issue-specific guidance that follows. Brands should also consider the CMA's recently published Green Claims Code which aims to help businesses comply with consumer protection law. The CMA has also compiled a checklist that companies can use.

If you are interested in this area, and would like to hear more about greenwashing and the ASA's guidance, listen here to our 'Meet the Regulators' Podcast where Stuart Lester is joined by Miles Lockwood, Director of Complaints and Investigations at the ASA, and leading the ASA's project on environmental claims.

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