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Environmental claims in your ads? Read this so you don't get banned for greenwashing

By Miles Lockwood |

June 6, 2022 | 7 min read

Major brands are increasingly falling foul of the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK over environmental claims made in their ads. No matter how well-intentioned your message, there are rules to follow if you don't want to see your ad banned next. So here's the ASA's director of complaints and investigations Miles Lockwood on the pitfalls you must avoid.

A question for you

If I asked you what connects plastic bottles, powered e-scooters, oat and almond milk drinks and singing otters, you’d probably struggle to come up with a rational response.

But at the ASA we’ve become aware that these seemingly disparate things do have something very important in common for marketers.

Greenwashing

Brands including Alpro, Oatly, Pepsi Lipton, Aqua Pura, Tier and Innocent Drinks have tripped up on their environmental claims

What connects them is they’re all related to ads that the ASA has recently banned for making misleading claims about the environment. And in all cases, although the marketer thought they were making a case for their product or service and its positive impact on the environment, they tripped up in the process.

Not the enemy of the good

Our recent high-profile rulings involving Alpro, Oatly, Pepsi Lipton, Aqua Pura, Tier and Innocent Drinks were all driven by consumer complaints. And they speak to our goal of shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on misleading and socially irresponsible claims that touch on the environment.

We recognize that in each of these cases, the advertisers sought to highlight environmentally beneficial aspects of their products. We certainly don’t take issue with recycled plastics over single-use plastic, or scooter-sharing schemes that get people out of more polluting forms of transport, or plant-based drinks that generally offer lower-carbon alternatives to dairy.

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We at the ASA are not seeking to be the enemy of the good.

But just because your brand is aiming to do good things for the environment, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the rules on accuracy, evidence and responsibility when constructing your ad.

Take the case of Alpro, which said “Good for you, good for the planet.” But what was it that was “good for the planet”? Sustainable almonds? 100% recycled packaging? Organically produced? The ad needed to make the basis of the claim clear... but it didn’t.

We will police all claims to the same high standards to ensure a level playing field so that consumers get the information they need to make informed decisions when it comes to the environment.

Precision matters

The rules are clear.

Ads that make environmental claims need to make the basis on which they are made easy to understand. They need to consider the whole lifecycle of a product or service, unless it’s clear that a more limited claim is being made. They must take care not to over-claim and they must not omit key information. Objective claims require evidence to be held at the time the ad appears. They must be socially responsible too.

In too many cases we’re seeing examples where advertisers over-claim. Where claims lack precision. Take Tier’s claim to be “environmentally friendly.” But e-scooters, while greener than some forms of transport, still have an environmental impact in their lifecycle. Had the ad said “environmentally friendlier,” we likely wouldn’t have investigated the ad.

And too often we hear the defense that the advertiser had intended to say something else. We don’t regulate ads on the basis of an advertiser’s intentions, though. For instance, in the Innocent case, it argued that its ad was intended as a broad call to action about the environment, yet we concluded that many consumers would understand the claims to mean that there was something inherently green about Innocent’s products when that wasn’t the case.

We regulate on the basis of how an ad claim is likely to be understood by the audience it is addressed to. So put yourselves in the shoes of the average member of the public you’re talking to, who won’t know anything like as much as you do about what evidence, science or process lies behind the claims. They won’t have spent days, weeks or months, like you have, thinking about the product or service.

When you’re constructing a claim, keep it simple. Be precise. Limit the claim to what you are really trying to draw attention to. And beware of making big, bold, absolute claims unless you are certain you can back them up.

Get help

In the coming years, we’re determined to keep cracking down on misleading and socially irresponsible ads. We’re unapologetic about that. There is too much at stake for us to do otherwise.

But we’re also here to help.

We’ve supported the fantastic work the industry is carrying out through Ad Net Zero by contributing to its training materials. We’ve issued advertising guidance, and more is to come. We’re developing a new e-learning module for publication later this year. We continue to offer advertisers advice on their ad claims through our free-to-use confidential copy advice service.

Environmental claims in ads can be some of the most complex to safely construct. But help is out there, so take it.

In doing so you’ll successfully make claims so they are good, rather than the enemy of the good.

Read more ASA stories here.

Environmental claims in ads can be some of the most complex to safely construct. If you’re not sure where and how to start, contact the ASA's Copy Advice team or visit www.asa.org.uk/environment for more information.

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