Will new ASA guidelines provide an end to greenwashing?

By Sammie Eastwood
The ASA has redrawn guidelines for advertisers looking to appeal to consumers by raising the bar for those wanting to flex sustainability credentials

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has introduced new guidelines when it comes to businesses making environmental claims in their advertising, in an effort to help prevent them from deceiving consumers, in a practice known as ‘greenwashing’.

Since social media gave conscientious consumers the power to name and shame brands that were actively harming both people and the planet, sustainability has become the next best industry buzzword. As ‘sustainable’ companies began leading the market, with many consumers turning their noses up at brands they considered unethical, suddenly every company was engaging in a sustainability journey

Unfortunately, until now, these environmental claims could be made somewhat spuriously without any real definition. Of course, there were some guidelines to curtail obvious falsehoods, for instance, buying one ream of bamboo paper does not a sustainable company make. 

However, up to this point, the language that required substantiating hadn’t been fully defined, leaving ample wiggle room. If a company had a net zero last mile logistics chain, yet every other aspect of their operation was still spewing CO2 into the environment, technically they could still make a net zero claim.

What constitutes a sustainable brand?

As defined by The United Nations a company is considered sustainable if it has “the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources, incorporating environmental, social and economic considerations”. 

For many years, companies have preyed on a lack of good sustainability reporting and the general laziness of consumers to get away with making these slightly omissive statements. Advertisers have always tried to push boundaries with claims that are technically true but require an unfair level of knowledge from the average consumer to read between the lines.

Surely any movement towards becoming sustainable is positive and should be communicated to potential consumers? Correct. Everyone around the world needs to be making a concerted effort to reduce their impact on the environment, no matter how small. However, misrepresenting how much those efforts are impacting the planet, or using them as a subterfuge to avoid accountability for your less environmentally conscious operations, is borderline unethical.

Customers are attracted to sustainability claims because they want to feel they are making conscious decisions to lower their environmental impact. Misleading claims not only hamper a consumer's right to make an informed decision, but they have incredibly damaging impacts on a brand once the curtain is lifted.

The new guidelines aim to remove any misconceptions about what constitutes a misleading statement in sustainability advertising.

Will this be the end of greenwashing?

As per the ASA’s Advertising Guidance - misleading environmental claims and social responsibility report 2022, “Marketers must consider consumers’ likely interpretation of a claim. Where general claims could be interpreted as absolute claims, or have multiple possible interpretations, additional information is required to make the meaning of the claim clear”.

This means no more absolute claims without caveat, expecting consumers to fill in the blanks, or spend hours trawling the internet to substantiate claims made by the brand. For instance, if a brand implies its operations meet a particular standard, such as B Corp, they need to freely provide information about what this standard means.

Despite consumers becoming far more educated on environmental claims, advertisers can no longer assume a degree of knowledge that is “greater than reasonable”. Language must be explained or backed up by sufficient evidence, or resources, to allow consumers to investigate the claims. 

While the ASA maintains that it has always expected advertisers to substantiate their environmental claims, this report goes a step further in detailing the exact language that requires substantive evidence. So to keep using words like ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘100% recyclable’ in advertising you now need evidence that these claims apply to the whole product or lifecycle.

An example used by the authority referred to a recipe box that used wording like “plastic-free”, “absolutely no plastic”, “100% plastic-free recipe box”, “100% recyclable” and “widely recycled”, omitting that these claims only applied to the packing box, not the components inside.

Whether this will help to curtain greenwashing efforts is up for debate, there will always be people willing to bend the rules for their own means. Hopefully greater transparency around claims will enable consumers to make better, more informed decisions.

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