The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s independent advertising regulator, and its sister organization the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) have recently issued new updates to their guidance on environmental claims with a particular focus on “carbon neutral” and “net zero” claims. These updates reflect key principles of the Competition and Market Authority’s related guidance on environmental claims.
These two claims were identified in the ASA’s Climate Change and the Environment project as a priority area for research due to an increased risk in consumer deception. The ASA’s research found that “carbon neutral and net zero claims were the most commonly encountered claims, but there was little consensus as to their meaning.” These claims are also under scrutiny in the United States, where they have been included by the Federal Trade Commission as part of the 10-year update on the Green Guides. And in light of the most recent IPCC report, which contained key findings on greenhouse gas emissions and the critical need for emissions reductions, these updates could not be more timely.
The ASA new guidance was part of an update to their advertising guidelines “The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising.” The ASA has previously ruled on a number of advertisements that were considered environmentally misleading or socially irresponsible, including:
- A claim by Hyundai Motor UK about “a car so beautifully clean, it purifies the air as it goes”, finding that had not been adequately substantiated and was therefore misleading.
- An Alpro claim “GOOD FOR THE PLANET” where the basis of the claim was not made clear.
- A series of Oatly ads stating that “Oatly generates 73% less CO2e vs. milk”, finding that Oatly had insufficient substantiation to support the comparison as consumers might understand it (i.e., all types of Oatly products compared to any type of cows’ milk).
- A picture of a Lipton Ice Tea bottle with a claim “100% RECYCLED*” where the asterisk qualified that the claim excluded the cap and label, finding that the qualification was insufficient to counter the consumer impression that all components of the bottle (including the cap and label) were made entirely from recycled materials.
What are the ASA’s new recommendations?
In light of the lack of understanding and consensus around the meaning of carbon neutral and net zero claims, the ASA advises advertisers to consider the following guidance:
- Qualifications (some of which are referred to below) are an important basis to assist consumer understanding of carbon neutral, net zero, or similar claims.
- Brands should include accurate information about whether (and to what degree) they are actively reducing or offsetting carbon emissions.
- Claims based on future goals related to net zero or carbon neutrality should be based on a verifiable strategy to achieve these goals.
- Claims based on carbon offsetting should comply with the usual standard of evidence for objective claims, and brands should provide information about the offsetting scheme being used.
- Qualified claims should present the additional information sufficiently close to the main aspects of the claims for consumers to take it into account before they make any decisions.
These new recommendations are part of the preexisting general guidance on environmental claims. For example, brands must consider a consumer’s likely interpretation of a claim and understand where qualifications may be necessary to explain the meaning of certain claims.
What Comes Next?
Following the publication of this guidance, the ASA will be monitoring its impact on carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising for six months. It will gather information to assess how these claims are being substantiated. The ASA may launch a review to provide further guidance about what forms of evidence are more or less likely to substantiate these claims in advertising, a process which could involve consultation with interested parties.
In the interim, the ASA has also stated that they are aware of organizations making “entirely unqualified” carbon neutral and net zero claims, which are likely to breach existing advertising rules. The ASA will be taking proactive action immediately to address such claims.
What Should Brands Take Away?
It’s clear that attention on brands’ use of environmental marketing claims is here to stay, and will likely continue to hone in on specific claims like “carbon neutral” and “net zero”. As regulators progress the guidelines for using these claims, it’s important to stay up-to-date on best practices and avoid any allegations of ‘greenwashing’ or misleading consumers. Claims about environmental impact should be clear, specific, and substantiated with adequate evidence.
As a starting point, brands should ask themselves the following questions when making environmental marketing claims:
- Is there appropriate evidence to support this claim?
- Has the evidence been subject to independent scrutiny?
- Is the evidence publicly available and can consumers verify the claims?
- Is it clear which part of the product this claim corresponds to?
How can Provenance help?
To comply with ASA guidance, businesses that make carbon neutral and net zero claims need to show proof that the claims are substantiated. Every claim (known as a Proof Point) made through Provenance requires evidence or verification, allowing brands to make claims that shoppers understand, and that fall in line with advertising stands.
Want to learn more about how Provenance can help? You can check your environmental claims against the criteria in the Provenance Framework – a free-to-use index of greenwash-proof sustainability claims.