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Shell rapped by ASA for ‘greenwash’ advert logo

Shell rapped by ASA for ‘greenwash’ advert

Oil company’s claim that its work in Alberta’s tar sands was ‘sustainable’ is branded ‘misleading’ by Advertising Standards Authority

Trucks on the oil fields outside Alberta, Canada  

Trucks on the oilfields outside Alberta, Canada. Photograph: AP

Oil giant Shell misled the public when it claimed in an advertisement that its giant $10bn oil sands project in northern Canada was a “sustainable energy source”, according to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The tar sands cover over 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta and contain nearly 173bn barrels of oil in the form of bitumen. This is strip-mined from vast open pits and the bitumen is then heated, using far larger amounts of energy than in normal oil operations, therefore causing greater carbon dioxide emissions. A recent report suggested that the production of oil from tar sands can create up to eight times as many emissions as producing conventional oil.

In one of the most significant “greenwash” rulings in some years, the independent body responsible for regulating UK advertising upheld a complaint from green campaign group WWF that Shell’s advert in the Financial Times was “misleading”.

“We considered that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) best practice guidance on environmental claims stated that green claims should not ‘be vague or ambiguous, for instance by simply trying to give a good impression about general concern for the environment. Claims should always avoid the vague use of terms such as ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, ‘non-polluting’ and so on”, said the ASA.

“Defra had made that recommendation because, although ‘sustainable’ was a widely used term, the lack of a universally agreed definition meant that it was likely to be ambiguous and unclear to consumers. Because we had not seen data that showed how Shell was effectively managing carbon emissions from its oil sands projects in order to limit climate change, we concluded that the ad was misleading”, said the ruling.

WWF argued that Shell was not helping provide a sustainable future by exploiting the oil sands. WWF said the oil sands were one of the world’s dirtiest sources of fuel and had a major impact on the environment. “Their extraction cannot be described as a sustainable process and for Shell to claim otherwise was wholly misleading,” said David Norman, Director of Campaigns at WWF-UK.

Shell had responded to the challenge that the accepted definition of the phrase “sustainable development” was “development which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It argued that this definition supported strong economic and social development over time, and recognised the importance of affordable and convenient energy in achieving that, whilst underlining the importance of protecting the environment.

Contributing towards “sustainable development”, said the company, “meant helping to meet the world’s growing energy needs in economic, social and environmentally responsible ways, and that in all their operations they integrated economic, environmental and social considerations into their business decision making”.

“The ASA’s decision to uphold WWF’s complaint sends a strong signal to business and industry that ‘greenwash’ is unacceptable,” said Norman. “If Shell were serious about sourcing sustainable energy, then they would be far better placed investing in renewable energy, such as wind, tidal or solar power”.

The ASA also ruled that Shell’s construction of the world’s largest refinery in Texas, also mentioned in the advertisement, was not helping sustainable energy production.

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