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Climate controls

The chairman of the ASA on the problems of greenwash, why Andy Burnham shouldn’t rule out product placement, and why Channel 4 deserves licence fee money more than BBC3. By Maggie Brow

Monday August 18 2008

Chris Smith: his arrival at the ASA has marked a change in tone from his predecessor. Photograph: Sarah Lee

The battlelines over greenwashing were drawn last week by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and its chairman, Chris Smith. The ASA upheld a high-profile complaint against Royal Dutch Shell for an ad that ran, just once, in the Financial Times in February, claiming that oil sands in Canada’s wilderness were a “sustainable” energy source. “We don’t want to discourage companies from making legitimate claims but want to reinforce the fact that they have an obligation not to mislead,” Smith says. “Ambiguous or exaggerated claims risk generating scepticism and undermine the genuine initiatives that many businesses, including Shell, are taking to be greener.” It is the second time in a year that Shell has found itself falling foul of the ASA’s mounting concern, and follows an ASA ruling in December on a Shell poster showing flowers rather than smoke coming out of factory chimneys which arguably forced the pace. And it is indicative of Smith’s determination to move against misleading green advertising. “That was clearly a misleading claim. It’s those sort of things we have wanted to raise concern about,” he says.

Chris Smith, or rather Lord Smith of Finsbury, is a genial, beaming presence – a highly unusual animal, a personable politician. Now 57, he is celebrating his first anniversary at the ASA, and applying his politician’s instinct for zooming in on those issues shooting up the public agenda, while also trying to keep the ad industry, desperate to avoid more restrictions after losing the battle over junk foods and children, on side.

His arrival at the ASA marked a change in tone from his predecessor, Lord (Gordon) Borrie, an austere competition lawyer. One of Smith’s first initiatives was to hold public seminars to take soundings on fraught issues. Sparked by a sharp rise in complaints about environmental claims – which have quadrupled from 117 complaints about 83 ads in 2006, to 561 about 419 ads in 2007 – the most recent seminar focused on greenwashing, when consumers are misled about a product or company’s green credentials.

Confusion reigns

But while there does appear to be genuine confusion about what common terms – carbon-neutral, 100% recycled, or wholly sustainable – really mean, some see Smith as bowing to pressure groups (the flowers complaint was made by Friends of the Earth, last week’s complaint was from WWF-UK). Smith denies this: “The reason we got interested in this is that the number of complaints – from, on the whole, ordinary members of the public – about environmental claims for products and services has been going up and up. I suspect that’s largely because environmental concern is rising generally, and so companies are using the environmental angle to put their case forward.”

The view of some critics is that the environment is not an area for advertising, which relishes superlatives. But Smith gives this short shrift: “The raison d’etre for the ASA is that companies can make the best possible claims for their product, but not mislead people. I absolutely don’t want to discourage them from doing so, the more that companies think seriously about the environmental impact of their products the better. But what they mustn’t do is pretend a product is greener than it is.

“On quite a number of these issues there is very little official government or national guidance. It would help us enormously if things were clearer at national level.” This is particularly true, he says, for claims of carbon offsetting.

The advertising code is currently being revised to take green issues into account, as well as going through a broader overhaul – the ASA, as a non-governmental body, oversees binding codes of practice for self-regulation of the advertising industry, most recently assuming operational responsibility for broadcasting.

“The green claims points can be included in that revision,” Smith says. “But it won’t stop there, it will have to be continually looked at, because this is a fast moving area.”

But greenwashing is only one of the issues the ASA is taking on: Smith also highlights a serious problem with the internet, which, with 2,980 complaints last year is now the second most complained about medium, after television, and ahead of print – and yet the ASA currently only has limited jurisdiction over pop-up ads and paid-for search devices. The authority calculates that more than 70% of complaints are entirely outside its remit, and has asked the Advertising Association, the industry’s overall trade body, to take an urgent look. It is expected to report in September.

“These [complaints] are coming from shoppers, ordinary people. The complaints are virtually all about misleading and inaccurate ads, not taste and decency issues. This is bread and butter stuff for the ASA,” says Smith. “What we don’t have is any agreement for advertising on companies’ own websites, if it’s a direct email to you from a company, say with an offer, it is covered, but if you click into a company website, that’s not covered.”

Smith adds that this large grey area includes child-friendly games, characters, and stories, advertorials, and the marketing of products, deals and prices. “On the whole nowadays a company which has a marketing department has executives who know the rules. In most cases they are using advertising agencies who know the codes. But the website may be being done by someone else. Getting the people who draw up website content to think about codes may be the way forward. The world of advertising needs to recognise there is an issue and needs to address it.”

The ASA is ready to help, but Smith says it is “not up to us to decide what happens”. He suggests one possible solution: an agreement to include advertising material on websites within the scope of the codes. “If that is the case there will have to be some sort of adjudication process on complaints. It would be a major expansion of work, and we would need income to resource that.”

Smith is far more relaxed about the operation of the ban on ads for high fat, salt and sugar foods in programmes children watch. “There are a few campaigning groups who are arguing that the rules are not strict enough, and there are calls for pre-9pm bans [on all advertisements for these foods, regardless of the programme],” he says. “My own personal view is that would be an overreaction.”

Resigning the whip

Towards the end of our interview, Smith suddenly confesses to feeling “a bit odd”. Just days before we met, this career politician had resigned the Labour whip, and become a non-aligned peer after taking on the chairmanship of the Environment Agency, a government body. Having spent a major part of his working life in active politics, declaring himself as a neutral requires a mental shift and a step back from direct involvement.

Given that he is no longer a Labour peer, I ask what he has made of the youthful Andy Burnham’s performance so far, as culture secretary – Burnham served as a special adviser to Smith when he was in government. The culture secretary has rushed to pre-empt a consultation period on the possible introduction of product placement on television, by declaring his opposition. What does Smith make of this? “My view currently is let’s see what the consultation provides on this. I’d say that in five years’ time the way people watch TV may have changed dramatically, and the impact of specific advertising slots may have reduced to such an extent it becomes difficult to finance programmes. It might [have to be] through product placement. Simply ruling it out … I’m not sure. I’m not wanting to take a definitive view at this stage.”

When Smith was culture secretary, of course, he helped create Ofcom, which is currently seeking a new chairman. Smith says he thinks Ofcom has been a “considerable success” on the whole, when asked for his assessment. “Nine out of 10. It’s easy to underestimate the scale of the task it faced … there are moments when they need to pay slightly more attention to the content side of their work than the purely economic and competition side, but that’s a minor quibble.”

As for Ofcom’s current public service broadcasting review, Smith has been persuaded by Channel 4’s argument for public funding. “I’m convinced by the case Channel 4 is making for their need for assistance in some years’ time: they don’t need it now. I believe they are a very important part of the broadcasting landscape. We must look seriously at where that help could come from.

“Top-slicing is not an option I would rule out completely. If I was secretary of state and I had £100m of licence fee money to deploy, with public service broadcasting values in mind, would I spend it on BBC3, or would I spend it on helping Channel 4? I think that’s a very difficult question for the BBC to answer.” And for Smith? It would, he says, have to be spent on Channel 4 because it is “absolutely” more important than BBC3.

Curriculum Vitae 
Age 57
Education Pembroke College, Cambridge and Harvard
1983 elected Labour MP Islington South and Finsbury
1997-2001 secretary of state for culture, media and sport
2003-2008 chairman, Clore Leadership Programme
2005 becomes life peer, privy councillor
2007 chairman, Advertising Standards Authority
2008 chairman, Environmental Agency

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