Magazine article Marketing

News Analysis: Greenwash Brands Risk Reputation

Magazine article Marketing

News Analysis: Greenwash Brands Risk Reputation

Article excerpt

Complaints over companies' environmental claims have spurred the ASA to take action, writes Gemma Charles.

As brands have become embroiled in a ferocious battle to demonstrate their green credentials, complaints about 'false' environmental claims in advertising have rocketed.

Whether it is claims of hitting carbon-offsetting targets, lowering emissions or carbon neutrality, or the inclusion of a logo trumpeting involvement in an environmental scheme, green messages are bombarding consumers.

Last week, Marketing revealed that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 93 complaints about 40 ads making green assertions last month, dwarfing the equivalent figure for last September, of just 10 complaints concerning eight executions. Grievances about environmental claims over the past 16 months have averaged 33 a month, but since June this number has shot up to 56.

The ASA has become so concerned about the trend that it has issued guidance on the issue to crack down on those making unsubstantiated green claims and thus reduce the number of complaints. The guidelines warn marketers that they will not be allowed to get away with woolly, unproven statements. As a result, some cases read more like an undergraduate science project than an advertising adjudication.

Robust evidence

'Advertisers have every right to promote their green credentials and many have been quick to reassure consumers about the efforts they are making to be kinder to the environment,' says ASA director general Christopher Graham. But he adds that the ASA needs to see 'robust evidence' in support of any green claims.

'What is particularly dangerous about having a complaint upheld is that it makes advertisers look hypocritical,' he says. His recommendation is to take advice and check it out before you say it. 'The Committee of Advertising Practice offers a free copy advice service and advertisers should use it,' he says, adding that it remains unclear whether the upward trend in complaints will continue.

It is obvious why brands are keen to promote their green credentials. A global survey by the BBC and research company Synovate, which quizzed 14,622 people, found that more than two-thirds were concerned about climate change, with the UK figure even higher at 74%. Even if companies' efforts in this area were purely altruistic, the conventional thinking goes that consumers will have a more positive perception of a brand if it appears to be environmentally aware, and may pay more for green goods or an environmentally friendly service.

But boasting about green attributes is a risky business. Not only are disgruntled consumers complaining to the ASA, about 10% of the claims are from companies setting out to rubbish their competitors' green claims. The battle between the train and the plane reached heightened levels of animosity earlier this year when easyJet complained to the ASA about a Virgin Trains ad campaign, which claimed that a train journey emits 75% less carbon dioxide than a similar trip by air. Ironically, easyJet's protest came just weeks after it was criticised by the ASA for inaccurately portraying the green benefits of its new fleet.

In addition to rivals and the public, there are also green organisations to contend with. No longer staffed by zealous hippies, they are every bit as professional in their marketing communications as the corporates they lobby against. These groups police the media, waiting to pounce on what they perceive to be misleading green claims. …

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