(Bloomberg) — The UK’s advertising regulator has made more than 20 enforcement actions against greenwashing. Targets of the Advertising Standards Authority — including airlines, banks and automakers — offer insight into some of the ways companies deceive consumers about sustainability. Ads that end up in the crosshairs must be altered or nixed in the UK.
The ASA’s crackdown mirrors scrutiny of greenwashing in the European Union, which earlier this year identified common words and phrases companies use to mislead people. Both the ASA and European Commission point to greenwashing strategies that include unclear comparisons, vague buzzwords and missing caveats.
“We know that the public is increasingly engaged with their carbon footprint and want to make ethical environmental choices,” ASA Chief Executive Officer Guy Parker wrote in a blog post last year. “Advertisers need to be honest about their environmental impact.”
Here are six examples of greenwashing, according to the ASA.
The promise of guilt-free flying
Air travel is an inherently polluting activity, and innovations like battery-powered planes and sustainable aviation fuel aren’t ready for primetime. That makes it difficult for airlines to offer specific claims about emissions reduction, so instead they’re keeping things loose. Two airlines, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Etihad Airways, have had adverts banned in the UK for overstating their environmental impact.
As part of its #MakeChangeFly campaign, Lufthansa last year debuted an ad that features the slogan “Connecting the World. Protecting its Future.” The ASA ruled in March that the ad could not run in the UK because there are “currently no environmental initiatives or commercially viable technologies in the aviation industry which would substantiate the absolute green claim” that Lufthansa is protecting the world’s future.
At the time, a Lufthansa spokeswoman said the poster in question was part of a larger campaign “that provided comprehensive information about the numerous measures the Lufthansa Group is undertaking in environmental matters” to halve its net carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Less than two months later, the ASA targeted Etihad Airways over ads it promoted on Facebook last year, which suggested the Abu Dhabi-based airline is “taking a louder, bolder approach to sustainable aviation.” Explaining its ban, the ASA said the claim “exaggerated the impact that flying with Etihad would have on the environment.”
Etihad said it was disappointed by ASA’s decision. “Sustainability is a key priority for Etihad,” the company said in a statement, citing its investment in fuel-efficient aircraft, sustainable aviation fuel and carbon offsetting.
Banks can’t leave out their oil work
Finance and banking are at the center of the global systems that fund fossil fuel investment and expansion. Those relationships are often opaque for consumers, and the UK advertising watchdog has taken a tough line on marketing that keeps it that way.
Like many big banks, HSBC has been the target of widespread criticism for its funding of oil and gas projects. A poster advert that ran in 2021 sought to address these concerns by publicizing a goal “to provide up to $1 trillion in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero.”
Adfree Cities, a network of UK groups campaigning against corporate advertising billboards, complained to the ASA about the ad. The group argued that HSBC continues to fund polluting industries, and the ASA agreed that most consumers wouldn’t know that. The regulator told HSBC to ensure that future adverts mentioning the environment are “adequately qualified.”
At the time, a UK-based spokesperson for HSBC said that “the financial sector has a responsibility to communicate its role in the low-carbon transition to raise public awareness and engage its customers, so we will consider how best to do this as we deliver our ambitious net-zero commitments.”
The bank has argued that its net-zero emissions plan is in line with guidelines set by the United Nations, and that it’s aligned with the approach recommended by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. HSBC also noted that International Energy Agency estimates show that there will still be a need for some oil and gas in 2050, making a full withdrawal from financing unrealistic.
Kinder cleaning products
Even consumers with a vague sense of laundry’s environmental impact might not understand the specifics: Washing machines and clothes dryers use significant energy and water, and excessive washing and drying degrades fabric quality, which can lead to more fashion waste and clothing fibers polluting waterways.
Last year, British consumer goods company Unilever Plc touted its Persil laundry detergent with the slogan, “Tough on strains, kinder to our planet.” The detergent works well in a cold, quick wash, according to the ad, and the bottle is made from 50% recycled plastic (excluding the cap and label).
The ASA told Unilever that “kinder” was an unclear claim, because the ad offered no basis of comparison. The ASA said Unilever also failed to explain the impact of the entire life cycle of its product, from manufacturing to use to disposal.
A spokesperson for Unilever told the BBC that is was “disappointed” with the ASA’s conclusion. “We are committed to making ongoing improvements to all our products to make them more sustainable and will continue to look at how we can share this with our shoppers,” Unilever said.
Two different claims that non-dairy milk is environmentally superior to cow’s milk have resulted in action from the ASA.
In 2020, a bus advert for almond and soy milk from Alpro (part of Danone SA), claimed the beverages were “good for the planet.” The ASA called the claim “ambiguous” — what did Alpro mean by good? The company countered that consumers would understand it was comparing plant-based milk and dairy milk. “We are disappointed about this outcome given that plant-based drinks… have a significantly lower environmental impact than dairy products,” Alpro said in a statement at the time.
In a series of ads, Swedish company Oatly Group AB also made claims about its products’ environmental benefits, including that its oat milk generated “73% less CO2e vs. milk,” and that the “dairy and meat industries emit more CO2e than all the world’s planes, trains, cars, boats etc. combined.”
Oatly based its claims on good sources, including UN research and scientific studies. But the ASA banned its ads, saying the company wasn’t being explicit enough in its comparisons. (For example, the ASA said Oatly hadn’t made clear that it was comparing plant-based milk to whole cow’s milk.) At the time, an Oatly spokesperson told The Guardian that the company “could have been more specific in the way we described some of the scientific data.”
How green is your lawn?
Using plastic grass instead of the real thing may seem like an obvious environmental hazard. But last year two companies got in trouble with the ASA when they tried to reassure consumers that making such a switch would have environmental benefits.
One company, Evergreens, claimed its plastic grass was “eco-friendly,” with benefits comparable to “the air-purifying effects of one mature tree.” The ASA said the grass being plastic overruled any benefits from transporting it in a more efficient way or exploring recycling options, adding that Evergreens did not have enough evidence to make the “mature tree” comparison.
A second company, Perfectly Green, said its “Soul Eco-grass” plastic grass was “recyclable,” a claim referred to the ASA by the campaign group Plastics Rebellion. The ASA said the grass was made from two types of plastic that had to be separated for recycling, and noted that the UK did not have the right infrastructure to process it. It also called the name “eco-grass” misleading. Perfectly Green said it would adjust future marketing communications.
Clean as you drive
Hydrogen cars may mean cleaner air, but do they clean the air? That distinction tripped up the Korean car company Hyundai Motor Co. in a 2021 advert for its NEXO car, which is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. On its website, the automaker claimed its car was “so beautifully clean, it purifies the air as it goes.”
The NEXO has an onboard air filter, designed to produce cleaner air to allow the fuel cell to work properly. But the ASA said the car still created pollution; specifically, tiny particles from its brakes and tires. The advert might make consumers think, incorrectly, that the car didn’t leave any impurities behind in the air. In the UK at least, Hyundai couldn’t run the ad again.
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