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Advertising regulators get tough over “greenwash”: many businesses are forgetting one not-very-small point: the claims need to be true

February 3, 2009

Elizabeth Judge and Marcus Leroux

They are the buzzwords that companies are jostling to be associated with: being “carbon neutral”, “wholly sustainable” or “low emission” has become ever more important as the market for environmentally friendly products booms.

However, in their attempt to clamber on to the multibillion-pound green bandwagon, many businesses are forgetting one not-very-small point: the claims need to be true.

After upholding complaints about companies including Scottish & Southern Energy, Shell and British Gas, advertising watchdogs are preparing to clamp down on what critics call “greenwash”.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) will announce plans soon to tighten codes about green marketing. In a consultation paper to be published in the next few weeks, it is expected to suggest making codes governing “green” claims far more specific. Advertising codes are set by the CAP and are policed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The committee is also expected to update the codes to factor in the wealth of new and emerging green technologies and trends that, after having come into vogue among a wider audience, are regularly touted about by businesses in advertisements.

Companies will also be reminded that claims about specific environmental credentials should not be used without evidence to back them up. Businesses that flout the CAP codes can have advertisements withdrawn, have them pre-vetted or have advertising space withheld.

In recent years, the market for “green” goods has boomed and the organic market, including food, cosmetics and clothing, was worth about £2 billion by 2007. At the same time complaints to the ASA have soared. In 2007 alone, nearly 600 complaints about alleged unsubstantiated “eco-friendly” claims were lodged with the watchdog.

The scientific grey areas around certain technologies and a lack of official definitions of some terms have, the ASA says, made dealing with some complaints “a challenge”.

Complaints that were upheld either entirely or in part by the watchdog include one about an advertisement by Shell in which the oil company claimed that its waste carbon dioxide was used to grow flowers. The ASA said that the advertisement implied that Shell used all its waste carbon dioxide to grow flowers, when it was shown that only 0.325 per cent of its emissions were used in this way.

British Gas was criticised for an advert in which a cartoon blue flame falls and squashes a carbon dioxide symbol to denote the group’s “carbon zero” credentials. The advertisement was misleading, the watchdog said, because the claim “carbon zero” implied that the fuel used was carbon-free and did not produce carbon dioxide. Although there was offsetting of emissions produced, and so the net effect on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was zero, the ASA concluded that the claim “carbon zero” implied that no carbon was produced.

Consumers are wising up to the tendency by some companies to bandy about “green” terms. Research by Gyro International found that half of British consumers do not trust companies’ environmental claims.

Lawyers are also growing increasingly cautious about the wording of such claims. Lawyers for Hewlett-Packard, the computer hardware manufacturer, have drawn up a list of terms that could be disputed.

The majority of complaints to the ASA are about energy sources and carbon claims such as “carbon neutral”.

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