Red light for greenwashing

words: Mark Binnersley

In September the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) confirmed it is now shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on environmental matters in the wake of updated Government climate targets.

The authority’s announcement came in the same week the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its Green Claims Code and warned that it is launching a sweeping review of misleading green claims, otherwise known as “greenwashing”.

To explain “greenwashing”, an ASA webinar highlighted the issue that is rising to prominence across the business world as firms attempt to appeal to a more environmentally-conscious public.

The funeral sector itself is not exempt from this problem, and in fact could, on occasion, find it difficult to prove green credentials due to a lack of independent data on the impacts of various elements of the funeral process.

From cars to coffins, we are often reliant on manufacturers’ claims. This means funeral directors and the public could struggle to decipher what’s genuinely green and what’s not when it comes to laying a loved one to rest.

To help clients in the buying process and avoid falling foul of the ASA’s CAP Code (UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing), funeral sector businesses should bear in mind three core principles for adverts. These are:

  • The effect of the advert on the consumer: this is the likely effect on consumers, not the intention of the marketer.
  • Transactional decisions: does the ad mislead consumers into taking a transactional decision that they otherwise would not have taken?
  • Average consumers: the advert is taken from the point of view of the average consumer viewing the advert – one who is taken to be reasonably well-informed, observant, and circumspect.

Misleading by omission

One of the key areas where adverts become problematic is ‘misleading by omission’. That is, leaving out details or context that prevent customers from properly evaluating the environmental benefits or impact of a product or service. Indeed, during the webinar, the ASA cited a range of case studies, including one from the funeral sector. I won’t go into too much detail, but the incident related to claims about a product being made from entirely recycled materials. Unfortunately for the manufacturer, it was proven that one component of the product was not recycled, and the advert breached the CAP Code.

Making claims stand up

Another key area to get right is substantiation, meaning businesses making claims about product or service performance must hold documentary evidence to back them up. Customers should be able to access this information in order to assess the claims. For example, it’s possible to say “70% of women agreed their skin felt more moisturised” if you produce survey evidence to support such a claim. But saying a toothpaste “whitens teeth by up to three shades” would require scientific evidence.

The importance of the life cycle

Additionally, marketers must base environmental claims on the full life cycle of an advertised product, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the limits of the life cycle. If a general claim cannot be justified, a more limited claim about specific aspects of a product might be justifiable. Crucially, marketers must ensure claims that are based on only part of the advertised product’s life cycle do not mislead consumers about the product’s total environmental impact.

Comparative claims

In the funeral world, one area where we have seen intense competition with regard to environmental claims is coffins. The CAP Code is clear when it comes to comparative claims such as “greener” or “friendlier”. These can be justified if the advertised product provides a total environmental benefit over that of the marketer’s previous product, or competitor products, and the basis of the comparison is clear. Alongside this, any absolute claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation.

In summing up, it’s important to remember that every industrial process is likely to have a negative impact on the environment. So, if you see an advert claiming a product or service is “good for the planet” alarm bells should ring. We can only reduce the impact of a product or service and any claims should be supported by credible evidence. If you think a product or service is being greenwashed, the ASA would like to know here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,