Green marketing — Are your claims sustainable?

Ethical Corporation, 1 September 2008 - Brands making green claims about their products need clarity on what they can and cannot say.

The recent surge in green marketing has left many brands searching for the right words to sell the environmental benefits of products.

But many advertisers still slip up by using vague terms that leave themselves open to charges of greenwash, as oil firm Shell has found to its cost.

In August, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Shell had misled the public by branding its Canadian oil sands operation “sustainable” in an ad in the Financial Times in February.

The watchdog ruled that “sustainable”, in the context Shell had used it, was “an ambiguous and unclear term”. It upheld a complaint about the ad from green campaigner WWF. The group promptly launched its own campaign accusing Shell of greenwash.

Green marketing terms remain ill-defined, and no successful attempt has yet been made to codify what advertisers can or cannot say when trying to promote goods with environmental benefits.

“Low carbon” is one term that the ad industry has yet to pin down. UK advertising codes fail to make clear whether the claim that a product is low carbon applies to its carbon dioxide emissions when used by the consumer, or across its whole life-cycle.

Defining precisely what is acceptable for green marketers to say is “work in progress”, says ASA chairman Lord Smith. He admits that “consumers are confused” by the mass of widely differing claims made by companies about their green credentials.

At present, terms such as “zero carbon” and “carbon neutral” are defined through case law. As the ASA deals with more greenwash complaints — the tally rose from 117 in 2006 to 561 last year — these definitions are refined.

The UK Committee on Advertising Practice, the industry body that writes advertising guidelines for marketers, has no plans to create a single code of practice for green marketing. All codes are under review and changes will be proposed in the autumn, it says.

But help for confused copywriters could soon be on its way. The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is talking with the advertising industry and NGOs about updating its Green Claims Code — a set of guidelines for marketers that was last revised in 2000. An announcement is expected “in a few months”, says the department.

A Defra spokesman adds: “The advertising industry is very keen on [the revised code]. If they want to make green claims, they want to be able to make sure that they are legitimate.” A view with which Shell, no doubt, would agree.

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