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When environmental claims become greenwashing

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United Kingdom

Consumers' desire to make purchasing decisions that impact the environment in a positive way continues to encourage advertisers to promote environmental claims about their products.  The ASA's latest ruling illustrates how easy it is for those claims to mislead consumers and for those advertisers to be tainted with claims of greenwashing.

On 31 August 2022 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published its latest ruling involving environmental claims and, specifically, "greenwashing", an act where an organisation makes a misleading claim so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.  This time the ruling related to Unilever's television ad for Persil washing liquid, which aired on 31 March 2022.  The ad received one complaint from a member of the public who challenged whether Unilever's claim that Persil washing liquid was "kinder to our planet" was misleading and could be substantiated.

In its response, Unilever argued that the ad was intended to illustrate how it continually improved its products to make them kinder to the planet.  The ad highlighted the following two product features that Unilever claimed had the effect of reducing the product's adverse impact on the environment, namely:

  • the washing liquid was proven to remove tough stains in a colder and quicker wash which was itself proven to reduce carbon emissions; and
  • the plastic container bottle now contained at least 50% post-consumer recycled plastic which kept plastic out of landfill.

Both initiatives were part of Unilever's 'Clean Future' programme which aims to ensure net zero carbon emissions in cleaning products by 2030 and Unilever held evidence to substantiate each of these specific claims.  On that basis, Unilever argued that it was not misleading to claim that Persil washing liquid was "kinder to our planet".  The ASA disagreed.

So why did the ASA disagree?

In fact, the complainant was not questioning whether Unilever could substantiate any of the specific claims the Unilever referenced, namely that the liquid was proven to remove tough stains in a colder and quicker wash that would reduce carbon emissions and that the plastic container bottle contained at least 50% post-consumer recycled plastic which reduced the amount of plastic going into landfill.  It was accepted that Unilever held evidence to substantiate these specific claims.  Instead, the complaint was that Unilever had no evidence to support the general, over-arching claim that Persil washing liquid was "kinder to our planet". 

The ASA highlighted the following two concerns with the claim:

1.         The first concern was not specific to environmental claims although the fact that Unilever was making an environmental claim no doubt raised the ad's profile and may well have prompted the complaint to be made.  The ASA's concern was simply that Unilever made a claim that it was unable to substantiate resulting in a breach of Rules 3.1 and 3.9 of the BCAP Code (the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising that applies to all advertisements on television services licensed by Ofcom).

This might seem surprising, given all of the evidence that this washing liquid possessed features that are kind to the environment, so what was wrong with the claim that Persil washing liquid was "kinder to our planet"?

The problem arose because this was a superlative claim and, as such, comparative.  Whenever a superlative is used in relation to a product, such as "better", "quicker" or, indeed "kinder", the product is always being compared with something else.  That "something else" will generally be one of two things, namely:

  • a comparison with a previous version of the same product – for example, "this new product is stronger than our previous formulation"; or
  • a comparison with another identified product – for example, "our petrol is cheaper than X's".

In the absence of any identified comparison group, the product will be compared with all similar, comparable products.  That was Unilever's problem here.  In its response to the ASA, Unilever argued that its current washing liquid was kinder to our planet when compared with previous versions and formulations of the same product and Unilever was able to substantiate this.  If Unilever intended to make a comparison with earlier iterations of the same product then the claim should have read something like "Our improved Persil washing liquid today is kinder to our planet than it has ever been".

As the ASA concluded "The ad did not state or explain the basis of the comparative claim, such as whether the advertised liquid detergents were “kinder” in comparison to Persil’s own previous products or other products."  In the absence of that qualification, the ASA had no choice but to conclude that the comparison was against all comparable products, i.e. Persil washing liquid is kinder to our planet "than any other washing liquid".  Such a claim would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate, not least because of the ASA's second concern, that environmental claims must be based on the full lifecycle of the referenced product. 

2.         As it happens, even if Unilever had made the basis of the comparison clearer by stating that the comparison was against its previous version of the same product, the ASA would still have upheld the complaint because Unilever had failed to provide evidence demonstrating that the full life cycle of the current product had a lesser environmental impact when compared to the previous formulation.  Any general claim about a product's impact on the environment will be regarded as an absolute claim about the product's entire lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal.  When making a comparison against all comparable products it is highly unlikely that an advertiser will ever possess sufficient evidence about the entire lifecycle of its own product, let alone that of every competing product.

Therefore the ASA concluded that the ad also breached Rules 9.2, 9.4 and 9.5 (environment claims) of the BCAP Code.

Useful reminder

This latest ruling provides a useful reminder of general advertising rules as well as those specifically relevant to environmental claims, namely:

  • Remember that general advertising rules apply to environmental claims just as they do to other claims.
  • Be particularly vigilant when making environmental claims given the regulators' and consumers' interest in preventing greenwashing.
  • It only takes one complaint for the ASA to open an investigation.
  • When using superlatives and comparative claims ensure the basis of the claim has been made clear by identifying what the advertised product is being compared against.
  • When making any general environmental claims about a product ensure you have evidence to substantiate that claim for the product as a whole, not just specific stages in its lifecycle.
  • Environmental claims are certainly not prohibited and in today's climate with sustainability such a key concern for many consumers, if done properly they can make a powerful impression – they just need to be done correctly.
If you require any further information in relation to this area please don’t hesitate to contact David Bond or Kate Williams
 
 

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