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Tips to promote sustainable credentials and avoid greenwashing claims

Posted on 12 November 2019

As consumers' concern for the environment continues to grow, brands must navigate the advertising of their green and environmentally friendly credentials with care. It has been reported that the Norwegian Consumer Authority recently found that H&M failed to provide sufficient information to support its environmental claims about its Conscious collection. The beauty industry has also experienced similar issues with evidencing sustainability claims. Whilst "sustainability" remains a key term for brands, fear of greenwashing accusations has, in part, kept many from discussing sustainability.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates UK advertising, has recently investigated environmental claims for food and beverage, wellness and home products. Rules 3 and 11 of the CAP Code are the most commonly cited for environmental claims in advertisements.  Rule 3 (Misleading Advertising) states that marketing must not materially mislead consumers (including by exaggerating the capability of a product) and marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers may view as objective. Rule 11 (Environmental Claims) requires marketers to, amongst other things, explain the basis of environmental claims; qualify claims where necessary; unless stated otherwise, use a full life cycle assessment when considering a product’s environmental impact; and hold robust evidence for claims and comparisons. Brands should also take into account DEFRA's Green Claims Code.

Below are three tips to help businesses avoid falling foul of misleading and "greenwashing" claims:

  1. Be wary of "best" claims. Claims that your product is "the most environmentally friendly" or "the best for the planet" are high risk, as these statements suggest that your product is superior to those of your competitors. Where comparisons, such as these, are drawn against competitors' products, brands must supply evidence showing that their products are more favourable to the environment than others and the basis for such comparison must be clear. Rule 3 also includes strict criteria about the basis on which comparisons can be made.
  2. Evidence any claims that your products are better for the environment: Quorn's recent tagline of "Healthy Protein. Healthy Planet" was accepted by the ASA, as Quorn had a report from the Carbon Trust evidencing that their plant based products have a lower carbon footprint and water and land usage than meat protein, on a "cradle to gate" basis. The ASA also acknowledged the scientific findings that plant based diets had a lower environmental impact than meat. Plenish Cleanse also provided a lifecycle analysis for their almond milk drink, alongside a detailed study of the full lifecycle of food products (including meat and dairy) and their environmental impact, which assisted the ASA in finding that its advert, of encouraging consumers to switch to almond milk due to the environmental benefits, was not misleading.
  3. Identify which stages of the life cycle are environmentally friendly. Marketers must base environmental claims on the full life cycle of the advertised product, unless the marketing communication states otherwise. Therefore, brands should make clear which stages produce the lower environmental impact and must not mislead consumers about the product's total environmental impact. The ASA found a broad statement of "zero emissions" to be misleading, where the manufacturer could not demonstrate that the products were free from all emissions. In particular, Rule 11.3 of the CAP Code states that any absolute claims, such as "zero emissions", must be supported by a higher level of substantiation.
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