Lead Forensics

Greenwashing: A guide to compliance

01 June 2022


Every marketer is now aware of the term “greenwashing”. Brands of all sizes are being called out on it, consumers are becoming privier to it, and governing bodies are strengthening legislature around it.

In short, if your business is selling a product or service, you are expected to be transparent about its impact on the planet. Misleading the public – whether knowingly or unknowingly – is likely to land you in hot water.

So, with that said, here’s a concise guide to greenwashing compliance.

The six key principles

In 2021 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published new guidance for businesses making environmental claims. Though neither legal advice nor a definitive tome on greenwashing, it serves as a first port-of-call when considering green claims.

The Green Claims Code comprises the following six principles:

• Claims about a product, service or brand must be truthful and accurate.

• Claims must be clear and unambiguous.

• Claims must not omit or conceal important relevant information that could impact purchasing decisions.

• Comparisons to other products, services or brands must be fair and meaningful.

• Claims must be substantiated with strong and up-to-date evidence.

• Claims must cover the full lifecycle of a product or service.

According to the CMA, around 40% of green claims made by firms could be misleading. This led to the launch of an ongoing crackdown at the start of 2022, with any claims made online, in store, offline or on product labels firmly in the cross-hares.

Greenwashing in advertising

Though the CMA’s tendrils of power stretch far, it is the specificic responsibility of the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) to police greenwashing in marketing communications.

Guided by rules contained in the BCAP (TV, radio and online ads) and CAP (pretty much everything else, including search, email, SMS and out-of-home) codes on environmental and social responsibility claims, the ASA will respond to any complaints with a full review.

If ruled to be in contravention of the codes, the ASA can publicly name and shame the offending party. Basically, it isn’t a good look to be seen flouting rules designed to protect consumers.

In the rare case of a business failing to comply with the ASA’s ruling, it can be referred to Ofcom or Trading standards for further sanctions.

Cracking the codes

Whether inadvertent or not, greenwashing can seriously undermine the efforts being made to reduce the impact of climate change. It’s on every advertiser and their agencies to familiarise themselves with the rules that govern environmental claims, as defined by BCAP and CAP.

These rules include – but are not limited to – the following:

• Claims made in an advertising or marketing communication must be clear. Significant information must be included to avoid misleading the audience – choosing to omit such information could make the claim unclear.

• Marketers should not assume a higher level of consumer understanding in relation to an environmental claim – especially if the advertisement is untargeted. If in doubt, additional information should be provided.

• Before launching a communication, marketers must ensure that they have collated robust documentary evidence to prove all claims – whether direct or implied – that are capable of objective substantiation. This is particularly key for claims such as “greener”.

• General claims about the environmental credentials of products or services are likely to be interpreted as claims about the product’s entire lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal. If general claims cannot be substantiated, then the limitations of the product’s lifecycle must be made clear.

• Claims of universal acceptance cannot be made if a significant division of scientific or otherwise informed opinion exists, or if evidence is inconclusive.

• If a product or service has never had a demonstrably adverse effect on the environment, advertisements must not imply that the product has been changed to make it safe.

• Even where claims can be substantiated or are technically correct, ads must take care not to mislead consumers about the environmental benefit of a product or service.

With the urgency of the climate challenge demanding changes in behaviour from consumers as well as businesses, the ASA, CAP and BCAP have also published revised guidance around the following:

• Making light of behaviours likely to result in harmful pollution or excessive waste.

• Encouraging or condoning the non-recycling of recyclable materials and packaging.

• Encouraging or condoning consumers to disregard the harmful environmental impact of their actions.

• Encouraging or condoning littering.

So, fundamentally, all environmental claims made in an advertising or marketing communication must be clear, specific and substantiated. Any ambiguity or unproven claim is likely to be picked up by the ASA.

If you’re unsure about anything, the ASA’s resource hub is rich with tips and guidance to help you make sense of it all. The Ad Net Zero Essentials certificate is another great place to learn more about climate change and the challenges we face as an industry.

We all have a crucial role to play in reversing this slide toward global catastrophe. Having the right intentions is one thing, but we must back them up with our actions if we’re to truly be drivers of positive change.

The Green Claims Code and ASA are allies in this fight for a better, greener future. By adhering diligently to their guidance, your business is not only doing what’s best for its own interests, but those of the rest of us, too.

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