Corporate greenwash

Ecologist Archive
From cars to petrochemical giants, every man and his dog has green credentials to show off to the world, but just how genuine are they? John Naish takes a closer look
You need to have environmental claims supported by a proper body of scientific experts, rather than one dodgy paper

Earlier this year, French car-maker Renault was censured by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for portraying its Twingo saloon puffing pretty leaves from the exhaust pipe, as a way of propping up claims that it was eco-friendly. The carmaker had placed its vehicle on a green background, with one of the leaves carrying the words, ‘ECOnomical ECOlogical’. The ASA’s adjudication said that the advert, and in particular the claims ‘ecological’ and the branding ‘eco²’ used in the copywriting, were misleading.

The carmaker said the Twingo had met certain criteria – set by Renault itself – that qualified it to carry the self-styled ‘eco²’ certification. Renault claimed the leaves emerging from the exhaust were illustrative of the fact that tailpipe emissions were generally used in measuring CO². The company’s case was let down, however, by the fact that the Twingo is in the third-from-lowest band of the Government’s emissions rankings.

Green-claim inflation has become a global concern. As the world’s manufacturers scramble to assure buyers that their products are cleaner and more sustainable (as well as more desirable) than the next guy’s, more and more observers are beginning to ask: shouldn’t we be getting tougher on greenwash?

While Britain lags behind with only a voluntary code and public warnings to tackle spurious eco sales pitches, governments elsewhere are tightening their rules.

In Norway, the Twingo advert would never have appeared in the first place on the basis that cars can’t be environmentally beneficial. Car manufacturers face fines if they use the words ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘green’, ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ in their adverts. A government spokesman explains: ‘If their car is more “green” or environment friendly than others, they would have to be able to document it in every aspect of production: emissions, energy use, recycling. In practice, that can’t be done.’

In Australia, changes to the Trade Practices Act mean that companies guilty of misleading environmental claims face up to $1.1 million in criminal fines as well as costs for putting the record straight. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission cautions against casually using icons of trees, planets, pandas and dolphins, as well as bandying terms such as ‘renewable’, environmentally safe’, ‘energy-effi cient’ and ‘carbon neutral’.

Canada’s government is also clamping down. Rules drafted by the country’s federal Competition Bureau and the Canadian Standards Association will prevent companies from making vague claims, requiring them instead to be backed by ‘readily available’ data. Rather than simply saying a product is recycled, a company will have to say how much of its content is from recycled materials. Companies will also be forbidden from saying products are free of chemicals if the products didn’t previously contain them.

Here in Britain, the ASA acknowledges that its guidelines need to be tightened, but currently has no timetable.  Between January and September 2007, the authority received complaints about 321 adverts making green claims, a substantial increase from the 62 adverts in 2006. In 2007, the ASA upheld complaints in 19 cases, compared with 10 in 2006. Those reprimanded by the ASA include a Cornish property developer, the wind farm company Renewable Energy Systems, oil giant Shell and budget airlines EasyJet and Ryanair.

The ASA was set up by the advertising industry to regulate itself. Supporters of self-regulation say the authority has sufficient powers to police environmental advertising and can act faster and more knowledgably than Government legislators.

The ASA’s Matt Wilson says the Renault advert is typical of the green cases it now handles: ‘We get very similar car adverts – they are “low emissions”, but in fact they are only low emissions in their tax band. Our rules are about adverts being clear and not misleading for the everyday consumer. If it’s fuzzy, it’s no good.’

Wilson says the authority is having to adjudicate over a rapidly developing sector where defi nitions themselves can be fuzzy.

‘There are already environmental-claims advertising codes in existence, but some of this involves really new stuff – questions about what “zero carbon” means and what is “sustainable”,’ he says. ‘We liaise with ecological bodies about such definitions.’

In April last year, the ASA upheld a complaint by Friends of The Earth over a Malaysian Palm Oil Council advert showing a man jogging through a rainforest and claiming that its palm oil was ‘sustainably produced’ in an environmentally beneficial way. The ASA judged that the advert, which appeared on the BBC World network, was misleading because palm oil production was not sustainable and had resulted in widespread deforestation, destroying the habitat of species such as the Sumatran elephant.

Policing green claims

Not all environmental groups co-operate with the authority, however.

‘We don’t take complaints to the ASA because we recognise its shortcomings,’ says Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace UK. ‘We don’t recognise its legitimacy to make rulings. We don’t think that it is currently a fit and proper agency to do this kind of decision-making.’ The two organisations clashed over an advert that Greenpeace had produced to raise awareness about claimed links between PVC and dioxins.

‘The ASA found against us when a complaint was made by the chemical industries,’ says Dr Parr. ‘We used supporting research from the Swedish Chemical Agency, which we did reword, but we think it was done with integrity. The ASA appointed someone who was not a specialist chemicals expert to study the case, however, and they found against us.’

The convoluted science that often underpins apparently simple eco-claims is beyond the authority’s current expertise, he claims.

‘Some of the science stuff is in areas that are controversial at the point in time, but in some cases the science is generally clear – it’s just that the corporations and manufacturers get hold of things such as one single anomalous study that might support their case, and they go with that. You need to have environmental claims supported by a proper body of scientific experts, rather than one dodgy paper, but at the moment that seems to pass muster, because if you have big pockets and a good lawyer, you can win in the adversarial environment currently used by the ASA.’

Dr Parr believes that the ASA could reform itself without having to acquire new legal powers. ‘Within their existing remit they could have their own standing body of experts who they could consult as a panel,’ he says, though he acknowledges Britain might ultimately need a statutory agency with the power to impose fines. He is cautious, however: ‘The levels of problems about green advertising are reaching a pitch were there might be some need for this, but we need to think through the implications.’

The ASA says it recognises the need for change and is consulting on possible answers, but there is no timetable for reform, and fines are not on the table. Last November, Lord Smith, the ASA’s chairman, said he wanted the watchdog to be ‘more proactive and higher-profile’ in policing green claims.

‘Whether it’s wind turbines or airlines or cars with claims about CO² emissions, the claims have to be accurate and the companies able to justify that,’ he said. ‘My message is that erroneous claims will not slip through the net.’

‘We are setting benchmarks as we go along,’ Matt Wilson explains. ‘It’s about defining the language and agreeing industry standards. When you make a judgement, that sets the precedent for the next people’s claims. It is a key issue that we are tackling. In June, we’re holding a seminar for makers, advertisers and companies, to create a forum for discussing these issues. All the questions that we ask will give us an idea for setting clearer guidelines. There will always be differing opinions, but we want to try to get some kind of consensus.’

He adds that, while the ASA intends to introduce new guidance this year, ‘We don’t have a timetable. We don’t set the agenda. But we hope that the June meeting will bring clarity.’ While the new rules won’t hit advertisers in the pocket, Wilson also insists the authority has the power to keep order. ‘We can rule that adverts are withdrawn, and in the small number of cases where advertisers carry on, we can get the ad-space providers to withdraw the ad spaces.’

Who cares about eco claims?

Such a system might have some effect, but subtle sanctions may lack the visible bite needed to address a problem facing naughty corporations and genuinely ethical producers alike: plummeting public confi dence in eco claims. Research by Datamonitor and YouGov at the end of 2007 found that 56 per cent of businesses think they are taking signifi cant steps to lessen their environmental impact, with a further 28 per cent saying they are doing everything they can. Scepticism about greenwashing means that only three per cent of consumers think that retailers are open and honest about their actions, however. A third of those surveyed believe green credentials are exaggerated to curry customers’ favour.

Such scepticism is rife in the US, where the nation’s advertising watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has accelerated its review of restrictions on environmental marketing claims. It had been scheduled for 2009, but late last year the commission decided to pull it forward in response to growing public concern.

The US is also seeing the advent of a new form of ‘consumer-led’ action, in the shape of the Greenwashing Index, a website that allows users to post adverts and rate them against a set of criteria to generate scores that range from ‘good’, to ‘pushing it’, to ‘total greenwash’.

The initiative, launched by US marketing agency EnviroMedia Social Marketing, uses criteria developed in collaboration with Oregon University’s School of Journalism and Communication. These cover whether an advert uses misleading words or graphics, makes vague or unprovable claims, overstates a product or services’ green credentials or leaves out relevant information. Kevin Tuerff, EnviroMedia’s president, says he hopes the index ‘will help eradicate bad environmental marketing claims and… shine a positive light on companies making measurable reductions in carbon emissions’. Of course, it also helps EnviroMedia to promote its own services.

In similar greener-than-thou vein, TerraChoice, which calls itself ‘North America’s premiere [sic] environmental marketing agency’, published its own survey of 1,018 consumer products last November and concluded that all but one made claims that were ‘demonstrably false or risk misleading intended audiences’. It’s a big, hard-hitting figure, but who can really say if it’s right? In a world beset by fears of greenwash and hogwash, who can we ever trust to assess green advertising claims independently?

Perhaps the answer is to declare eco advertising claims a busted flush and try to do something practical instead. This is the suggestion of John Grant, the co-founder of advertising agency St Luke’s and author of The Green Marketing Manifesto. ‘Companies with ecologically friendly products should spend their marketing budgets on radical product and service innovation, plus education to encourage positive behaviour and attitude change, rather than on plugging their green brand credentials,’ he says. ‘My analogy is this: imagine you were standing in front of a house on fire. Would you throw water on the fire and do all you could to help, or would you stand there and ask, “See what we’ve done with this bucket here – look at the beautiful handles”?’

Grant adds that while he likes the sound of Australia’s million-dollar fines, he fears that the cost of dragging a multinational corporate through several appeals courts could soon make the practice unattractive. Besides, he adds, rules are there to be circumvented.

‘The problem with advertising standards is they legislate on what you can say, not what you communicate. It is standard practice, for instance, for food products that aren’t allowed to make health claims to hire sports stars for their adverts instead. For green claims, polar bears might be outlawed, but who can argue against pictures of fields or hippy chicks?’

It seems inevitable that we will continue to be bombarded by advertisers’ spurious eco-claims, and along with them will come an increasingly bewildering amount of green marketing guidelines, kitemarks and logos. There is already a confusing morass of such eco-labels around. How many mainstream UK consumers, for example, know that Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has published a Green Claims Code, along with a list of 20 different approved eco-labelling marks? The Government has also published guidelines for ensuring products meet the UK Green Claims Code, as well as ISO 14021, the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, and the European Commission Guidelines for making and assessing environmental claims (none of it, however, legally enforceable in the UK.)

How many mainstream UK consumers would recognise the EU- backed Ecolabel flower symbol, for products independently certified to prove that they are greener and perform as well as other leading brands?

Meanwhile, a number of UK food companies and retailers are planning to add to the eco-sticker mountain by introducing carbon footprint labels, showing the amount of carbon emissions emitted in bringing the product to the shelf. Walkers Crisps has begun showing the Carbon Trust’s carbon reduction label on its packs, Boots will add carbon labels to some own-brand shampoos in the summer and Tesco is currently trialling the Carbon Reduction Label, developed by the Carbon Trust, on selected Tesco products. The recycling body WRAP is working with grocers on a carbon kitemark scheme, although a spokesman admits there is a long way to go. ‘The key issue,’ he says, ‘is consistency.’ Well, indeed.

This, in part, is why Forum for the Future, the UK-based sustainable-development charity, in conjunction with Business for Social Responsibility, launched a report in April entitled Eco-Promising: Communicating the Environmental Credentials of Your Products and Services. One can hardly question its intentions and integrity, but amid the current blizzard of independent, unregulated green guidelines, such initiatives may paradoxically add to the muddied waters. Add to this companies’ self-created, self-awarded eco-badges, and the danger of public alienation is clear.

Already a poll by Ipsos Mori shows that nine out of 10 people are concerned about climate change – but so confused they don’t want to do anything significant to halt it – and the Climate Index Report, produced by banking multinational HSBC, says this trend will worsen. It predicts the emergence of a ‘post-green generation’ suffering ‘green fatigue’ and practising ‘green rejection’. Faced with proliferating eco-claims and kitemarks to add to all the niche marketing, optional extras, special offers and new-improveds on the shelves, even eco-aware buyers’ brains may blank out and revert to choosing on the basis of perceived value and brand loyalty.

The 'choice editing' option

There is a radical alternative, however, one that has been proposed by that bastion of industrial self-interest, the Confederation of British Industries (CBI). The idea is called ‘choice editing’ – using the law to cut out meaningless green options. In May last year, CBI director-general Richard Lambert called on advertisers and businesses to develop a single standard to eliminate the confusion. He told the Advertising Association: ‘The idea that customers should be able to consider the environmental impact of a product when making their purchase choices makes sense – but it’s very difficult. The existing confusion will only be made worse if there are hundreds of different benchmarks to choose from.’

The concept of choice-editing is taken far further by a report from the National Consumer Council and the Sustainable Development Commission, Looking Back, Looking Forward. It proposes that we introduce laws to remove the most damaging products from the shelves, rather than leaving option-addled consumers to decide. Rather dismally, it says that green marketing can give advertisers a fractional advantage and improve their brand image, but ‘providing [ecological] information has failed to get more than a minority of people buying the most energy-efficient dishwashers, fridges and washing machines, even when it pointed to savings on running costs’.

Instead, change is achieved only when wasteful products, such as energy-sapping washing machines and CO²-belching cars, are effectively outlawed by design-and-use legislation. ‘Where sustainable products have become mainstream, choice-editing was a critical driver,’ the report says. It looks as if the Government may have to decide on green options for us. Ironically, in a consumer world where eco-friendliness has been added to the welter of new you-can-have-it-all options that advertisers constantly offer, the only effective green-marketing choice may be to offer no choice at all.

John Naish is a journalist and author of Enough: Breaking free from the World of More (Hodder & stoughton)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2006

You need to have environmental claims supported by a proper body of scientific experts, rather than one dodgy paper

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