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Complying with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules

In this article we’ll look at what the updated ASA advertising guidance means for companies advertising in the UK when it comes to environmental claims.
Business
2023-03-03T00:00:00.000Z
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In February 2023, CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) and BCAP (the broadcasting equivalent) published updates to their advertising guidance called ‘The Environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising’. This consolidates the ASA’s (Advertising Standards Authority) position on misleading environmental claims and provides specific direction on the use of net zero and carbon neutral statements in advertising. 

👉 In this article we’ll look at what the updated ASA advertising guidance means for companies advertising in the UK when it comes to environmental claims.  

What is the ASA?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent advertising regulator. It has been in operation since 1962 and aims to enforce the advertising codes of practice of its sister organisation, CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice).

The advertising codes of practice are called the CAP and BCAP codes - the BCAP code is simply the equivalent of the CAP code but for broadcast adverts. Supporting guidance is also published alongside the codes, which helps advertisers to interpret the regulations. 

It is the ASA’s responsibility not only to enforce the content of these codes, but also to respond to concerns and complaints from businesses and consumers, and to ensure that misleading, harmful or offensive adverts are banned. 
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What’s the problem with the old guidance?

Environmental claims and terms such as carbon neutral and net zero are increasingly used by businesses to advertise how their products or services are helping to meet climate targets. Such terms can strongly influence consumers when purchasing a good or service and so they have huge potential to unfairly mislead consumers when used incorrectly (this is known as greenwashing). 

👉 Greenwashing is a term used to describe the situation where a company makes environmental claims for marketing purposes without actually having any evidence to substantiate the claim. For more information on this,why not check out our article on greenwashing

However, since there are no definitions set in UK law governing the basis of such claims, and since many environmental claims are based on complex issues lying outside the assessment capabilities of the ASA (for example the validity of carbon offsetting schemes), it can be difficult to police. 
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ASA green claims review

Recognising the issues surrounding environmental claims, in 2021 the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) undertook research into the UK public's understanding of such claims. One of the focuses of this research was to better understand the average UK consumer's comprehension of ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ claims in advertising.

Carbon neutral and net zero are terms that are increasingly used in advertising, and attached to these terms is the risk that consumers are misled. The ASA’s research identified the following key findings: 

  • The spectrum is broad when it comes to UK consumer engagement and understanding of environmental issues and claims. 
  • Carbon neutral and net zero are the most frequently encountered terms in advertising, however, they are also two of the terms with the least consensus when it comes to meaning. Significant reform is needed to simplify and standardise their definitions, and a body to oversee their use is also advised. 
  • Consumers generally took carbon neutral claims to mean an absolute reduction in carbon emissions. Many consumers were therefore left feeling misled when they learned of carbon offsetting claims relating to the same service or good. 

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s define the two terms: 

Net zero is considered to be the gold standard when it comes to reducing our environmental footprint. It means that all greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to ensure that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions is equal to the amount being removed from the atmosphere. It requires that any emissions that cannot be reduced are offset somehow. 

Carbon neutrality on the other hand, means that carbon emissions released into the atmosphere by a company’s activities are balanced by an equivalent amount of emissions being removed. This balancing practice is known as carbon offsetting and can involve practices such as planting trees, investing in renewable energy etc. It should be noted that carbon neutral only accounts for carbon emissions, not other greenhouse gases. 

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CMA guidance - what's this?

The CMA (ie. the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority) released guidance on environmental claims on goods and services in September 2021. This was in response to their investigation on the impact of ‘green marketing’ on consumers.

Their findings revealed that nearly 40% of online green claims were misleading. This was on account of the use of vague terms such as ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘natural’ without anything to substantiate the terms. 

Other areas of concern that were identified included the use of un-official logos giving the impression that the brand or the product was officially accredited, and hiding information to appear more environmentally friendly. 

In response to these issues, the CMA laid out six principles that businesses should follow when it comes to environmental claims. These are: 

  • Be truthful and accurate
  • Be clear and unambiguous
  • Avoid hiding or omitting material information
  • Make fair and meaningful comparisons
  • Consider the full life-cycle of the product
  • Substantiate claims

This guidance on environmental claims on goods and services was also considered and reflected in the ASA’s updated advertising guidance. 

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What is the updated ASA guidance?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published updated guidance in February 2023 in response to its earlier findings regarding the use of environmental, sustainability, carbon neutral, net zero and greenwashing claims in advertising. The guidance (The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising) incorporates advice on the use of the terms carbon neutral and net zero and also reflects key principles of the CMS’s guidance on environmental claims. 

CAP and BCAP asks advertisers to take into account the following principles: 

  • Avoid the use of unsubstantiated claims such as carbon neutral or net zero. Where they are used, advertisers should include information explaining the basis for these claims so that consumers can easily understand what they mean. 
  • Marketing material should include accurate information when it comes to claims of carbon offsetting (ie. the degree to which they are reducing carbon emissions). This will help to avoid misleading consumers who may wrongly believe that products or services don’t produce any emissions. 
  • Any claims that relate to future ambitions (eg. reaching net zero or reaching carbon neutrality), must be built on a verifiable strategy of delivery. 
  • Any carbon offsetting claims must comply with standards of evidence and advertisers must also provide details on the carbon offsetting scheme they are using. 
  • Where claims include qualifying information, this must be relevant and easy for consumers to see and understand before they make any purchasing decision. 
The guidance is clear on the point that absolute environmental claims must be supported by a significant level of substantiation. Examples of ‘absolute environmental claims’ that the ASA has identified in the past include terms such as: ‘the greenest stoves on earth’, ‘save CO2 emissions’, ‘plastic-free’, ‘100% recyclable’, ‘widely recycled’, ‘environmentally friendly’. Absolute claims such as these must be supported by qualifying information.

In terms of the level of substantiation required, where there are differing scientific opinions or inconclusive evidence, this should be made clear to consumers. What ‘significant substantiation’ means according to the guidance is that ‘marketers must be convinced that the relevant informed opinion is not divided’. 

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Other points that advertisers must consider when it comes to ‘green advertising’ include that comparator environmental claims (ie. greener, friendlier) will require evidence proving that the product or service results in an environmental benefit over comparable products or services. This information should be included in the advert, or otherwise it must be clearly signposted where consumers can find this information.

Marketers must also ensure that any general claims apply to the entire lifecycle of the product (unless expressly qualified), from manufacture through to disposal. Examples of full lifecycle claims include ‘good for the planet’, ‘helping to support a more sustainable future’, ‘100% eco-friendly’, ‘good for the land’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘zero emissions’, ‘gives back to the environment’, ‘less plastic’. 

Marketers may make an environmental claim relating to only part of a service or product's lifecycle, however, this should be expressed clearly. For example, in the case of an electric car, a zero emissions claim may be permitted where the advert makes it clear that this relates to driving only. What's crucial is that advertisements must not mislead consumers about the environmental benefit of a product or service. 

What’s next?

Following the recent publication of this updated guidance, the ASA will adopt a six month period of monitoring to assess the impact of the guidance on carbon neutral and net zero claims. Additionally, it will gather information on how such claims are being substantiated. 

If, after the six month period ,the ASA finds that carbon neutral and net zero claims are being made based on questionable evidence, it will incite CAP to launch a review. This review would provide new guidance on the types of evidence that is acceptable when it comes to substantiating environmental claims in advertising. 

In the meantime, where the ASA determines that companies are making unqualified carbon neutral or net zero claims, this is likely to breach ASA codes, and the ASA will take action to address such misleading claims. 

Looking forward

Concerns around greenwashing and misleading environmental claims are gaining traction, causing regulators to tighten up when it comes to the rules surrounding green marketing. Advertisers and marketers need to make sure that they’re aware of the updated guidance to ensure that they don’t fall foul of the rules. 

This will also empower consumers to make informed decisions when it comes to the products and services they’re buying. Increasing numbers of consumers are actively searching for sustainable products and want to do their part to help the environment. 

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If you enjoyed this article, check out our legislation tracker to discover what frameworks, regulations and guidelines apply to your business and industry.

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