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Policy & Regulation Sustainability Brand Safety

Why ‘natural’ gas is the latest greenwashing term facing an advertising clampdown

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By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

April 19, 2023 | 6 min read

Environmental groups in Europe and the US are combatting “a tidal wave” of greenwashing terms they say are nothing but hot air. The latest is ‘natural’ gas.

Gas hob

Climate groups say stronger guidelines are needed to prevent consumers being misled / Unsplash

In the US, a coalition of organizations including Clean Creatives, Client Earth, Influence Map and The Sierra Club are in the process of submitting comments to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging new guidance to combat misleading environmental claims by corporations – particularly in polluting and high-carbon industries like fossil fuels.

Their presentation comes following an invitation to inform the agency’s ‘Green Guides,’ which were last updated in 2012.

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The groups have made several requests, including that the FTC brings its Green Guides in line with international standards and restrict the amount of advertising on renewable energy by fossil fuel companies to correspond with the money they are investing.

They also want to crack down on specific terminology employed by oil firms to soften public perception of their activities. These include: ‘natural’ and ‘green’ gas, which the groups say are inherently misleading when used in reference to methane, since ‘natural’ misleads consumers into thinking that methane is environmentally friendly instead of a potent greenhouse gas, and adopting stricter guidance against misleading terms such as ‘renewable natural gas.’

Clarification on how ‘net zero’ claims ought to be substantiated is also being demanded, especially for fossil fuel companies who often advertise net zero plans without sufficient evidence on how they plan to achieve them; alongside tightened rules around the marketing of ‘carbon offsets’ and the use of offsets to justify sustainability claims.

“The Green Guides are an opportunity for the FTC to address one of the greatest barriers to climate action: greenwashing and false advertising from the fossil fuel industry,” said Duncan Meisel, executive director for Clean Creatives.

“Big corporations, and fossil fuel companies in particular, have been getting away with lying to consumers about their net zero commitments, carbon offsets, and the environmental benefits of so-called ‘natural’ gas. Stricter guidance from the FTC would not only help clear the airwaves of this misinformation but send a warning to advertising agencies that these sorts of misleading claims will be subject to greater regulatory and legal scrutiny.”

An investigation into the use of greenwashing terms such as these is currently being carried out in the UK by the ASA. The FTC is expected to issue the revised version of the Green Guides by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, in Europe, four environmental non-governmental organizations, including ClientEarth and the WWF European Policy Office, are suing the European Commission over its decision to classify fossil gas as ‘sustainable’ in its sustainable finance rulebook, known as the Taxonomy.

The move comes just after the Commission faced criticism for its diluted Green Claims Directive.

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The groups argue that this classification is unlawful and goes against several key EU laws, such as the Taxonomy Regulation itself and the European Climate Law, adding that such classifications of gas cannot be considered sustainable given its negative impacts on the environment, including its high carbon emissions and effects on climate change.

Want to learn more about the most important issue of our time? Senior reporter Ellen Ormesher will explore the role advertising and marketing play in facilitating the climate crisis. Case studies, tips, interviews and more. Register your interest here.

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