The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has released a report on environmental claims in advertising, which warns advertisers of a dramatic rise in the number of complaints brought concerning such claims.

In 2006, the ASA received 117 complaints regarding green claims in 83 advertisements. In 2007, the agency received 561 complaints concerning 410 ads.

“Independent research commissioned by the ASA in November 2007 indicated a high awareness of green issues and environmental claims in ads. However, it also revealed a high degree of confusion and a lack of basic understanding about claims and what they mean,” stated the report, which was released following a public meeting in June on environmental claims and greenwashing.

“The research also found that those who were the most concerned about the environment tended to be the most knowledgeable and most cynical about what they see as ‘greenwash,’” the ASA said. Claims most commonly challenged were those involving CO2 emissions, such as carbon “neutral,” “zero” and “negative,” as well as absolute claims, such as “100% recycled” and “wholly sustainable.”

The purpose of the meeting was to invite stakeholders to help the ASA address issues that are increasingly arising in environmental marketing, which the agency noted was a “relatively new and developing sector.” The ASA asked stakeholders to address issues involved with making claims concerning low carbon, green energy, carbon neutral, zero carbon and sustainability.

Several attendees called on the ASA to take the lead in clarifying the standards that guide green marketing claims.

“Delegates said it was difficult to determine the rules because there were a number of codes and guides from government, NGOs and regulators. As each code was constantly changing because of the sector changing quickly, companies are often confused about what they can claim,” the ASA stated.

The ASA responded that the Committee of Advertising Practice is in the process of revising its advertising codes, and the drafts would be distributed in the fall for comment. Final revisions were expected next spring. The agency pledged to work with the CAP and companies to determine whether more specific guidelines are needed.

Generally, advertisers need to ensure that their claims are substantiated with “robust evidence” and are “qualified in a way that is clearly understood by consumers,” the ASA stated.

Green Claims Reviewed

In addition to its environmental claims report, the ASA recently has reviewed the advertising of several companies to determine whether their green claims were sufficiently substantiated.

In early September, the ASA released the results of its review of a television ad for ExxonMobil that included a discussion of the company’s use of liquefied natural gas. In the commercial, an ExxonMobil employee states:

I think one of the biggest challenges that the world is facing today is to develop all the energy we need in an environmentally friendly way. It’s going to be vital that we develop all sources of energy to fuel the future growth of the world economy and this growing population. Its going to be oil and gas, coal, nuclear, wind and solar. We are going to need them all.

One of those examples is liquefied natural gas. Natural gas is one of the world’s cleanest fuels but most of it is found far from where it is needed. We have a number of different technologies that we’re developing to ensure a reliable supply of natural gas for Europe. We take the gas, liquefy it and that allows us to ship it over enormous distances. ExxonMobil has found ways to transport as much as 80 percent more liquefied gas than was possible before and bring more energy to more people all over the world.

Four viewers argued that the use of production of liquefied natural gas causes significant carbon emissions, and challenged whether the claim, “Natural gas is one of the world’s cleanest fuels” misleadingly implied that liquefied natural gas was environmentally friendly.

The agency that created the ad defended it, stating that natural gas indeed is a cleaner source of energy than most other fossil fuels. The agency also stated that “they were aware that it was difficult for Exxon to make claims about any environmental benefit and were careful, therefore, to ensure that appropriate wording was used and the claims placed in a suitable context,” according to an ASA summary of the advertiser’s position.

Nonetheless, the ASA upheld the complaints against ExxonMobil.

“We understood that there was likely to be carbon emissions generated by the liquefying and transport process of liquefied natural gas, as pointed out by one viewer, and that, as a fossil derived fuel, it was a major contributor to carbon emissions and was not therefore environmentally friendly,” the ASA concluded.

“We concluded that the ad misleadingly implied that natural gas was one of the cleanest sources of energy and that liquefied natural gas was environmentally friendly.”

Shell International

The ASA also upheld a complaint brought by the World Wildlife Fund UK against Shell International Ltd. in a decision issued in August.

The dispute involved a print ad with a headline that read, “We invest today’s profits in tomorrow’s solutions.” The WWF challenged text in the ad in which Shell stated that the company was deploying technology to “secure a profitable and sustainable future.” The WWF pointed to Shell’s actions to extract oil from the Canadian oil sands, and build a refinery in the United States.

Shell defended its ad by providing evidence that it was developing both projects by incorporating sustainable principles into its efforts. For example, the company was not build a new refinery in the United States, but rather was expanding an existing refinery and using technology that would result in a per-barrel emissions reduction.

Nonetheless, the ASA upheld the WWF’s complaint.

The ASA cited guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on environmental claims, which advises advertisers to avoid the use of vague terms such as “sustainable,” “green,” and “non-polluting.” Although sustainable is a widely used term, it has no agreed-upon definition. Therefore, Shell’s use of it was ambiguous and misleading, the ASA concluded.

Why This Matters:  As the FTC examines the use of environmental claims in the United States, the ASA increasingly is scrutinizing similar claims made in Britain. Therefore, advertisers should examine developing standards carefully, avoid making general green claims that cannot be substantiated, and ensure they can substantiate specific claims.