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Opinion: Green advertising sometimes gets the ad regulator’s red light

With the ever-increasing initiatives, great and small, for the protection of our planet, we’re seeing more increases in referencing environmental and sustainability themes, with messaging around what benefits products or services can deliver directly or indirectly.

Consumers naturally have an expectation of making informed buying decisions from accurate promotional information. We see many responsible ads incorporating ‘green’ topics, and yet some fall foul of ‘greenwashing’, generally understood as passing off something as seemingly having a positive environmental impact when this is not fully the case. This continues to concern the Advertising Standards Authority.

A European Commission monitoring exercise (2020) on environmental claims found that 53.3% of the claims that were evaluated were vague, misleading or unfounded, and 40% were completely unsubstantiated. Although product labelling itself is outside our advertising Code, of concern in the study is that consumer trust was undermined, arising from the scale and variety of ‘green’ labels (230 in all) due to broad differences in reliability and robustness, leading to wholesale scepticism.

At our core, we are about fostering trust in advertising for everyone, and looking to enforce the highest standards in advertising. Our Code on ad standards includes a range of rules specifically on environmental claims. Apart from ad claims needing to be truthful and so as not to mislead, such as about a positive environmental impact, there is generally a need to base environmental claims on the full lifecycle of the advertised product. It is important that ad claims based on only part of the product’s lifecycle are not misleading about the total environmental impact.

Our independent Complaints Committee have adjudicated on a range of ‘green’ claims for well over a decade now. Recurring features of upheld ad complaints include ambiguity in content wording resulting in the potential to mislead, and exaggerated claims. Code breaches also have arisen from the use of superlative and absolute claims. These were inappropriate because of overinflating the actual benefits of the advertised products or their use.

A significant watch out, and reflective of broad concerns across Europe, are the European Commission’s two legislative initiatives aiming to regulate the use of green claims. The first of these amends EU consumer law to prohibit a number of misleading practices. The other proposal consists of a dedicated Directive on green claims, potentially necessitating most companies to substantiate voluntary green claims made in business-to-consumer commercial practices. In that case, advertisers would need to comply with several requirements when creating their ad claim, such as when taking a life-cycle perspective.

If these initiatives are adopted by the European Parliament and the Council representing the Member States – possibly in late 2024 or 2025 – some brands across Europe may eventually expect to have increased workloads through proving green claims in advance. This could be delivering on new requirements in the form of a heavy focus on providing evidence-based substantiating material together with the possibility of having to submit their claims with substantiation material for external review and pre-approval, all before going to market to advertise products or services. And if such a Directive is to be transposed into national law, the options of applying more extensive obligations on enterprises’ green advertising in Ireland is a further possibility. Advertising Standards Authority will share more as this space develops.

Getting content and advertising claims on the right side of our Code can sometimes be challenging. Anyone creating advertising content – on any commercial subject, product or service – can get easy access to our free, confidential and non-binding copy advice service by contacting us a