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CMA Greenwashing Agency Culture

ASA: ‘We’re taking a firm appoach on greenwashing because stakes are high’

By Miles Lockwood, Director of complaints and investigations at the ASA

June 23, 2023 | 10 min read

Miles Lockwood, the ASA’s director of complaints and investigations, explains why it’s tightening up the way it tackles misleading green claims in ads – and how advertisers can speak on green issues with confidence.

a forest in sunlight

The ASA has recently banned a slew of ads for greenwashing / Unsplash

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recognizes that business anxiety around the risk of making ad claims that get banned for so-called greenwashing has been growing in recent months.

That’s in part because of the increasing awareness from businesses of just how important it is that they talk to their customers in a transparent and accurate way about environmental issues.

But we also recognize that our sustained and ongoing regulatory scrutiny is driving the debate about how businesses should respond.

The ASA and our partner regulator the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have been taking a firm approach to tackling misleading green claims. We each have ambitious programs of work which aim to tighten compliance with our Advertising Codes and the CMA’s Green Claims Code.

We’re doing this because the stakes are high.

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Government has set ambitious legally binding net zero targets for the UK and experts are advising that consumer behavior change in key high carbon-emitting sectors will be crucial if they are to be met. Businesses have a limited window of opportunity to demonstrate that advertising is part of the solution. Otherwise, statutory interventions in advertising may follow, as we’re already seeing happen in France.

That’s why in recent weeks we’ve published important decisions against oil and gas giants including Shell, Petronas and Repsol, who had made broad claims about their green transition plans. In doing so, they omitted to give a sufficiently balanced account of the reality of where they were on that decarbonization journey.

We’ve called out airline advertising by Deutsche Lufthansa and Etihad who made misleading claims about the environmental impact of flying with them.

And we’ve held to account Anglian Water for similarly making misleading claims when the most recent and credible environmental reports show their record needs to improve. At the same time, we found that Severn Trent’s record substantiated their green credential claims.

The CMA meanwhile is deep into investigating fast fashion companies and now beginning a key inquiry into the fast-moving consumer goods sector.

We and they will continue to take a firm but proportionate approach in the coming months and years.

The choice is not between greenwashing or greenhushing

As the debate around how companies should respond to the need for green transparency has developed, we’ve seen a narrative taking shape that companies face a binary choice between greenwashing and greenhushing.

We don’t agree. Reducing the choice that businesses have between either greenwashing or greenhushing is far too simplistic.

Impactful and informative green claims benefit consumers because they enable them to make more responsible choices. Businesses have a right to speak about the environmental credentials of their products, services, actions and ambitions. But in today’s world where there is so much riding on these issues, businesses must be realistic and honest with themselves and their customers about where they are on their own sustainability journey. They need to ensure that they are communicating in a way that does not get ahead of that journey and in doing so paint a misleading or irresponsible picture.

Accuracy and transparency of communications are therefore key.

Getting the balance right

Reducing the choices businesses face to a binary one between greenwashing and greenhushing also fails to engage with the reality that there are usually simple, practical ways to construct claims in ads that won’t fall foul of the Advertising Codes.

Precision, using more limited claims and adding appropriate qualifications to claims can help. Take the recent case of Intrepid Travel who offered ’Planet Friendly’ holidays. We banned that claim because there is nothing planet friendly about air travel, which obviously forms an unavoidable part of many of their holiday experiences. But a more limited, qualified claim based on the otherwise well-supported sustainability changes Intrepid Travel had made might well have been acceptable.

This next piece of advice is key and topical. If you’re in a high carbon emitting sector, adding balance when making broad aspirational claims really matters.

HSBC, Shell, Repsol, Petronas, Deutsche Lufthansa and Etihad all tripped up because they made claims about their green credentials and aspirations when at the same time the reality of their high carbon business models was out-of-kilter with the overall impression given in the ads.

On the other hand, we’ve recently seen other high-carbon emitting businesses make similar claims but in ways that we think add sufficient balance to green credential messaging so that the ads don’t mislead consumers. They’ve done so through the inclusion of straightforward, prominent copy in ads that acknowledges the less-climate-positive aspects of their activities, indicates how early in their journey they are, or that provides summary details of their future planned activities. Such copy does not have to dominate ads, but it must not be hidden away.

So, be reassured that if you’re in a business that has a high carbon footprint but are on a credible pathway to net zero or working towards other ambitious plans to shift your balance of activities, we are not going to ban your claims about those ambitions in ads so long as they tell a balanced story.

And as ever, as a last piece of advice, always put yourselves in the shoes of the consumer who probably has high interest but low knowledge and understanding of the sometimes complex issues that underpin your green claims. Many consumers don’t understand what “carbon neutral” means or how it’s achieved in practice. Many won’t understand the technical end-of-use conditions that make a carrier bag “compostable”. You should assume a low level of knowledge when marketing green claims and you will need to work hard to ensure your message is not misunderstood.

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Getting help with your claims

Businesses are asking us what practical assistance we can provide in navigating these issues.

The good news is that there is a lot of help out there already that businesses should be making extensive use of. And this support will further develop as our decisions continue to define when environmental claims are misleading or not.

Late last year we produced dedicated e-learning on environmental claims. Our sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice has just published a major update to its Guidance on Environmental Claims to help businesses navigate green claims. This update draws out the lessons from key recent ASA rulings such as the decision on HSBC last autumn and our more recent decisions on airlines, energy and water companies.

And, of course, our dedicated copy advice service offers confidential, tailored, 24-hour advice on non-broadcast green claims.

Excellent advice is also available from the CMA on compliance with their Green Claims Code, which is aligned with the rules that the ASA enforces. The Ad Net Zero website and the World Federation of Advertisers also produce useful advice for marketers.

So, take advantage of the wealth of advice and guidance.

Be realistic and talk transparently about your sustainability journey and where you are along it. Be precise, clear, balanced, honest and accurate in your ads. Don’t overclaim or assume consumers know what you know.

If you do these things, you’ll be on the right track toward greenspeaking with confidence.

Miles Lockwood is director of complaints and investigations at the ASA.

CMA Greenwashing Agency Culture

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