News Analysis: Greenwash brands risk reputation

Complaints over companies' environmental claims have spurred the ASA to take action, writes Gemma Charles.

As brands have become embroiled in a ferocious battle to demonstrate their green credentials, complaints about 'false' environmental claims in advertising have rocketed.

Whether it is claims of hitting carbon-offsetting targets, lowering emissions or carbon neutrality, or the inclusion of a logo trumpeting involvement in an environmental scheme, green messages are bombarding consumers.

Last week, Marketing revealed that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 93 complaints about 40 ads making green assertions last month, dwarfing the equivalent figure for last September, of just 10 complaints concerning eight executions. Grievances about environmental claims over the past 16 months have averaged 33 a month, but since June this number has shot up to 56.

The ASA has become so concerned about the trend that it has issued guidance on the issue to crack down on those making unsubstantiated green claims and thus reduce the number of complaints. The guidelines warn marketers that they will not be allowed to get away with woolly, unproven statements. As a result, some cases read more like an undergraduate science project than an advertising adjudication.

Robust evidence

'Advertisers have every right to promote their green credentials and many have been quick to reassure consumers about the efforts they are making to be kinder to the environment,' says ASA director general Christopher Graham. But he adds that the ASA needs to see 'robust evidence' in support of any green claims.

'What is particularly dangerous about having a complaint upheld is that it makes advertisers look hypocritical,' he says. His recommendation is to take advice and check it out before you say it. 'The Committee of Advertising Practice offers a free copy advice service and advertisers should use it,' he says, adding that it remains unclear whether the upward trend in complaints will continue.

It is obvious why brands are keen to promote their green credentials. A global survey by the BBC and research company Synovate, which quizzed 14,622 people, found that more than two-thirds were concerned about climate change, with the UK figure even higher at 74%. Even if companies' efforts in this area were purely altruistic, the conventional thinking goes that consumers will have a more positive perception of a brand if it appears to be environmentally aware, and may pay more for green goods or an environmentally friendly service.

But boasting about green attributes is a risky business. Not only are disgruntled consumers complaining to the ASA, about 10% of the claims are from companies setting out to rubbish their competitors' green claims. The battle between the train and the plane reached heightened levels of animosity earlier this year when easyJet complained to the ASA about a Virgin Trains ad campaign, which claimed that a train journey emits 75% less carbon dioxide than a similar trip by air. Ironically, easyJet's protest came just weeks after it was criticised by the ASA for inaccurately portraying the green benefits of its new fleet.

In addition to rivals and the public, there are also green organisations to contend with. No longer staffed by zealous hippies, they are every bit as professional in their marketing communications as the corporates they lobby against. These groups police the media, waiting to pounce on what they perceive to be misleading green claims.

Shell found this out to its detriment when Friends of the Earth took umbrage at one of its ads, which stated that its waste CO2 was used to grow flowers. In a bid to get the maximum amount of publicity, the campaigners filed a complaint with the regulator as well as sending out a press release detailing its intention to complain. The activity resulted in a wave of adverse publicity for Shell.

There is growing awareness in the marketing community of the need to tread carefully. Speaking at last week's Applied Green conference, organised by Marketing, Campaign and Eurostar, Greg Nugent, marketing director of the train operator, said the widespread adoption of green policies means that 'as an industry we now face a very different challenge. Early signs are that the public do not believe this rash of green claims and worry about their authenticity.'

Honesty is key

David Hieatt, co-founder of ethical clothing firm Howies and a former ad agency copywriter, went further, saying that where green claims are concerned 'there isn't that much honesty', quipping that with cars and airlines all claiming to be environmentally friendly, it was only a matter of time before a nuclear company got in on the act. 'Everything we do has a negative impact on the environment. Companies have to show that they can be honest; customers will appreciate their struggle,' he told delegates.

Larissa Persons, head of strategy at corporate responsibility consultancy Good Business, says despite the mass activity, consumers' 'environmental intelligence' (EQ) is still low. 'This whole area is changing very fast and is extremely complicated,' she says.

Person adds that brands that want to get ahead should run informed campaigns that can own the green arena instead of making superficial claims. 'As EQ levels rise, these green charlatans will be exposed, while companies and brands that establish themselves as educators and advisers will be well-placed for the future,' she says.

'Greenwash' is the derogatory term used by critics to deride attempts by companies to appear greener than they actually are. But if brands continue to make inaccurate claims that attract complaints, they can have no comeback when faced with accusations of greenwashing from detractors.

False environmental claims, whether intentional or not, also provide ammunition for those who want to see an end to self-regulation of the ad industry and move to a statutory system.

More worrying for brands, consumers and the environment alike, if this trend continues, it is likely to desensitise consumers to all green initiatives, including the genuine ones.

DATA FILE - ASA CHECKLIST

- Get your facts right. Do not exaggerate the environmental benefits of your product: ad claims should be supported by documentary evidence.

- Scientific knowledge is developing all the time. Do not present claims as being universally accepted if the science is inconclusive.

- Do not use pseudo-science, or terms that will not be generally understood by consumers.

- Avoid sweeping or absolute claims such as 'environmentally friendly' or 'wholly biodegradable'. It is unlikely that you will be able to prove your product has no environmental impact.

- Saying that something is 'locally produced' should mean exactly that. Shipping goods in from abroad or the other end of the country does not make them 'locally sourced'.

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