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The truth will out in advertising

Jeremy Eden

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) will be enforcing revised codes later this year to deal with environmental or green claims made in advertisements.  This follows the recent ASA adjudication on the Government’s nursery rhyme newspaper advertisements which were found to be misleading in their portrayal of the risk of man-made global warming.

The Government is one of many to have fallen foul of the ASA when making claims that relate to environmental matters, and while many businesses in the waste and recycling sector will want to use advertising to promote themselves and distinguish what they do from their competitors, it’s wise to consider the pitfalls before making any environmental claims.

The ASA enforces codes produced by The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) in relation to non-broadcast advertising, and also by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) in relation to broadcast advertising.  The two codes, which have been recently revised and will be enforced by the ASA from 1 September 2010, now include specific provisions to prevent advertisers from making exaggerated environmental claims.  The key points to note when making claims in an advert are that you must be:

  • Legal.  Adverts must comply with the law and not incite anyone to break it.  You also can’t suggest that an individual’s basic statutory rights are a distinctive feature of your offer.
  • Decent.  Your advert cannot cause widespread offence.
  • Honest.  An advert must not exploit the lack of knowledge or inexperience of your customers.
  • Truthful.  You are not permitted to mislead the public by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise; and
  • In line with the principles of fair competition.

However, the most important point to note is that where you make a claim, whether direct or implied, you must have clearly documented evidence to support your claim.

Some examples of where companies failed to achieve this to the satisfaction of the ASA are as follows:

Shell placed a national advertisement in newspapers emphasising its green credentials by stating that “We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers” and also “we use…our waste sulphur to produce super-strong concrete”.  Friends of the Earth challenged the advert on the basis that, according to its calculations, only 0.325% of the CO2 produced by Shell was supplied to greenhouse growers.  Additionally, according to Shell, only 8 tonnes of sulphur-strengthened concrete had been produced at that stage.  The ASA found that the advert breached the CAP code in respect of truthfulness and environmental claims.

Ryanair ran a series of adverts in protest against an increase in airport tax, claiming that “aviation accounts for just 2% of CO2 emissions”.  The statement brought about 34 complaints, and the ASA adjudicated in favour of the complainants because the Government had estimated that in the UK, aviation was responsible for 5.5% of CO2 emissions.  Furthermore, there was considerable debate about how to calculate CO2 emissions for aviation and consequently Ryanair had failed to qualify its statement accordingly. 

Citroen ran an advertisement for its C5 VTX hatchback, stating it emitted an “ultra low 142 CO2 g/km”, which resulted in a complaint that the emissions, being in Band C of Bands A-G of the ratings for carbon emissions, were not ultra low and the advert was potentially misleading.  The ASA adjudicated against Citroen because the advert breached the requirements for substantiation, truthfulness and environmental claims.

If you want to highlight your green credentials in an advertisement, then it is recommended that you take advice on the relevant codes, and the ASA also usefully provides a Copy Advice service to assist you with this.

Jeremy Eden is head of the waste resource management team at EMW Picton Howell

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