As consumers continue to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, it is important that the information they receive about products is as accurate as possible. Complaints surrounding the issues of misleading advertising and the advertising of unsustainable products has more than tripled in number over the last few years, and it continues to be on the rise.

We spoke to Miles Lockwood, leader of the Climate Change and Environmental Project at the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), about the issues surrounding greenwashing and misleading advertising, and what businesses can do in order to comply with the rules.

Lockwood explained that creating an advert can be a "complex area" to navigate, as it involves an understanding of wide-ranging environmental issues and the nature of claims made. It is a difficult balancing act for businesses to master when producing accurate advertising and making positive changes regarding sustainability.

The ASA does not exist to be an "enemy of the good", and recognises that many businesses are developing products and services which are better for the environment but holds them to the same standards as any other kind of business. Whilst Lockwood noted that the ASA does not wish to dampen these initiatives or reduce progress that is being made in this space, he acknowledged that the ASA is "not apologetic" for taking a tough line in this sector.

Lockwood's top tips to brands and businesses: striking the right balance in advertising

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer.
  2. Be precise and have evidence to support your claims.
  3. Don't over-claim your sustainability. A limited claim is always more defensible. The bigger and bolder claim, the bigger risk you take. Examples of this are:
    1. "Environmentally friendlier" is much easier to defend than "environmentally friendly".
    2. Remember that small changes can make all the difference.
  4. Keep up with the ASA's latest rulings and invest time into completing the training they provide on their website. The ASA is currently developing further training materials which will be published summer 2022.

CAP Code and Green Claims Code

The ASA administers the CAP Code but works in tandem with the Green Claims Code, which was published by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) last September (2021). Lockwood told us that the Green Claims Code fits "very neatly" into the ASA's rules, and described it as "vital" as it applies the same underlying legislation that the ASA works toward.

The Green Claims Code applies to all commercial practices including advertisements, product labelling, packaging and product names. The ASA does not regulate underlying products, services or packaging, but instead ensures that adverts are truthful, socially responsible and not misleading. In this way, Lockwood "welcomes" the Green Claims Code as it looks at wider business practices whilst the ASAs expertise lies in advertising claims.

Lockwood told us that the ASA and the CMA have monthly meetings to share intelligence, plans for the future and to divide up work areas. It is hoped that the partnership between the ASA and the CMA will continue to tackle emerging trends surrounding the topical issue of misleading advertising and climate change effectively.

Social responsibility

The ASA has been working closely with the concept of social responsibility, which relates to issues such as unsustainable behaviours and excessive consumption. Lockwood explained that social responsibility explores what should be considered socially acceptable against the prevailing standards of society. The public is increasingly concerned about the climate emergency and as a result he sees that pressure will increase on advertisers to avoid making irresponsible claims that concern the environment.

This is a largely untested area and Lockwood expects tension surrounding what is deemed to be socially responsible or irresponsible in the future. Lockwood anticipates that this concept will be explored in further detail in upcoming ASA decisions. An example of social responsibility could be an ad that encourages littering or irresponsible disposal of electronics. Hence, social responsibility is an area of concern which is of great importance in the current climate.

Misleading claims

Evidently, there is a balancing act for businesses to master when producing accurate advertising and making positive change regarding sustainability.

Lockwood appreciated that many businesses are making changes to address the climate emergency and are actively playing their part. However, many environmental issues often involve complex science, an understanding of the claims made and an understanding of the many moving parts that can form the supply chain of a product. Hence, Lockwood noted that the regulation on advertising is a "complex area" as many of these moving parts are out of the companies control, such as when part of the supply chain is produced overseas.

There is also the need for a broader look into whether such claims can be made if the company's overall activity, investment and business model is not as green as the advert purports it to be. An example of this would be fashion companies who produce fast fashion that is not designed to last but claims they are "green" or "sustainable". That particular issue is currently being scrutinised by the CMA.

However, Lockwood explained that the law that underpins misleadingness can constrain the way in which the ASA tackle issues as it is arguably a high threshold to meet. For example, is the reasonably observant consumer who sees an ad for an oil company promoting only its green credentials likely to not also know that they drill oil? Questions like this are the sorts of issues the ASA needs to address in the coming months and years. Social responsibility would not be limited or constrained in this way, and therefore Lockwood encourages consumers to conceptualise and contextualise their complaints.

On the other hand, companies who make bold claims such as "100% carbon neutral" when they are not certain about their entire supply chain are at risk. Lockwood would advise companies to invest time, effort and precision in ensuring their adverts do not over-claim and that they have evidence to support what they say.

Encouraging sustainability

We asked Lockwood about the ASA's objectives, and particularly whether he thought that the ASA's focus on ensuring adverts are not misleading could lead to companies improving their efforts at sustainability.

Lockwood explained the ASA's objective is to ensure advertising is legally truthful, not misleading or socially irresponsible. If a natural consequence of this leads to companies becoming more sustainable, then this would be a "great outcome".

Proactive approach – more training

During late 2021, the ASA decided to become a proactive resource by focussing enquiries on the issues identified by the environmental committee, such as the pressing need to meet net zero targets by 2035 and 2050. The ASA has published a dedicated section on their website for climate change and the environment, as well as developing further materials such as training videos and an e-learning module on development. Lockwood noted that the ASA will continue to develop guidance and more training surrounding this, which largely mirrors the steps that the CMA are taking.

2022 plans

In 2022, the ASA will be commencing enquiries into claims made on the issue of waste, such as recyclable, biodegradable, compostable and plastic alternatives.

In 2023, the ASA will complete an enquiry into meat-based, dairy and other forms of food sustainability issues. Companies promoting plant based alternatives sometimes overclaim or produce ads that lack precision. This was seen in the Alpro ruling, where the ASA found that there was no qualification to Alpro claiming their milk was "good for the planet", breaching the CAP Code on misleading advertising, qualification and environmental claims.

It’s also important to remember that some plant based products are processed and include ingredients such as palm oil which is sourced from around the world, and therefore it can’t always be assumed that such products are environmentally better than locally produced meat based products. Hence, this creates questions surrounding whether companies have considered the whole life cycle of a product before making environmental claims.

The ASA recognises the need to go further to tackle the issue of misleading advertising appropriately and proactively, and plan to use the climate change committee priority areas of carbon production and consumer behaviour changes to guide them on this. It is hoped that this could lead to additional guidance offered by the ASA on misleading advertising, and lead to further partnerships.