The UK Advertising and Standards Agency (ASA) has recently published a report in response to an increase in consumer complaints regarding misleading environmental claims in advertisements. Companies and advertising agencies have been accused of "green washing" advertisements – making environmental claims that are less about saving the planet and more about exploiting consumer concerns. Particularly open to challenge are claims about CO2 emission and phrases such as carbon "neutral," "zero" and "negative," and claims about energy sources. A number of companies have recently fallen afoul of the ASA adjudication process by making misleading claims, including Shell Oil, British Gas, Lexus and Ryanair.
One of the biggest problems faced by advertisers is that the definition of "green" is always changing and scientific research can be open to interpretation. Advertisers are further hindered by unclear ASA and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidance on the subject. The report suggests that both advertisers and the ASA often lack the technical expertise to effectively vet environmental claims.
The ASA Director General has said that the ASA needs to:
1) Ensure that ASA/CAP staff expertise is up-to-date and comprehensive in order to evaluate environmental claims effectively.
2) Ensure the advertising code review process responds to the views of consumers and companies.
3) Investigate whether the CAP guidelines could be more explicit, even if this means that guidelines would need to be fluid because of the fast-evolving nature of science and technology in this sector.
4) Work with advertising agencies and companies alike to bolster technical understanding of issues and existing rules on environmental claims.
To avoid falling afoul of the ASA, and to avoid the costs and negative publicity associated with a negative adjudication, companies and advertisers must be certain when producing and clearing advertisements that environmental claims are accurate and can be clearly justified.