Shell advert that the ASA has upheld a complaint about
Daily Telegraph: Record complaints over ‘greenwashing’
By Graham Tibbetts
Last Updated: 6:01pm BST 25/04/2008
Record numbers of complaints have been levelled at major businesses who “severely exaggerate” their environmental credentials, the advertising watchdog will say next week.
Airlines, oil companies and car manufacturers have all been censured for adopting the practice known as “greenwash” to cash in on consumers’ growing ecological concerns.
In 2007 the number of environment-related complaints more than doubled from fewer than 150 in 2006 to well over 300, according to the Advertising Standards Authority which is due to publish its annual report on Wednesday.
Lord Smith of Finsbury, chairman of the ASA, said it was one of the fastest-growing areas of complaint and now formed a significant part of the watchdog’s role.
“Because environmental issues – climate change in particular – are coming very strongly to the top of the political agenda, a lot of companies are thinking ‘This is clearly a matter of public concern – let’s see if it will help us sell our products’,” he said in an interview with The Telegraph.
“What we are seeing are claims about being carbon neutral, zero carbon emissions and use of words like ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’, ‘100 per cent recycled’ or ‘greenest car in its class’.
“We have come across quite a number where claims are exaggerated or misleading or, in some cases, severely exaggerated.”
A number of the complaints against national and international advertisers were upheld, including Ryanair and Toyota, with Shell identified as one of the worst offenders.
It placed a series of newspaper adverts featuring an oil refinery with flowers emerging from the chimneys and the claim “we use our waste CO2 to grow flowers”.
However, Friends of the Earth complained that it implied most or all emissions were used, whereas the true figure was just 0.325 per cent of its CO2 output. The ASA upheld the complaint.
“This is an extreme example but what they were doing was taking their bit of good environmental practice and making a big claim about themselves and their products,” said Lord Smith, the former culture secretary.
Where a complaint is upheld the ASA can force the offender to change an advert or withdraw it altogether, which could result in a company losing a multimillion pound advertising campaign while gaining a mountain of bad publicity.
“Any misleading in advertising is bad for the consumer and not particularly helpful for the company because they will be found out,” said Lord Smith.
“I suspect Shell are somewhat embarrassed by their ‘we grow flowers’ claim because it’s such a ridiculous claim.”
He admitted that dealing with environmental complaints was “breaking new ground”, which meant having to deal with them on a case by case basis.
However, in June the ASA will bring all parties round the table to develop a framework for future ecological advertising.
“We are hoping that by having a serious discussion with advertising experts, companies and environmental organisations we will be able to head off some of the growing problems by putting some proper guidance in place,” said Lord Smith.
“Companies are obviously keen to find new messages that will help them sell their products. I have no objection to them doing that provided they are doing it truthfully and don’t exaggerate.”
Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s political director, said: “Mounting concern about green issues has persuaded many businesses to take real action to reduce their environmental impact.
“Unfortunately too many companies have responded by making misleading claims about their activities. Industry must respond to the huge environmental threats that the planet faces. But this must be through a genuine commitment to protecting the planet, and not by trying to fool the public with advertising ‘greenwash’.”
Environmental complaints upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority
Picture in newspapers of oil refinery with flowers in chimneys, alongside text: “We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers.” Only 0.325 per cent of their emissions were used to grow flowers.
TV ad claimed “what if all cars were like the Prius; with its hybrid…technology it emits up to one tonne less CO2 per year”. Car comparisons were “not suitable” and data were based on average US driving distances, which are far greater than British ones.
Newspaper ads stated: “Aviation accounts for just 2 per cent of CO2 emissions.” Although global figure is 2 per cent, the British figure is 5.5 per cent.