I heard a true story the other day of a leading company in renewable energy which was banned from saying in its marketing literature that its biomass products used ‘sustainably sourced’ wood. The edict came from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), backed up by Defra.
The offence? Using the S word.
Yes, warn your marketing agencies and copywriters right now. Any attempt to sell stuff using the S word is, well, unsustainable.
For 10 years Defra’s Green Claims Code has set out best practice on the content of environmental claims including accuracy, truthfulness, relevance, use of unambiguous terminology, presentation of claims and comparative claims.
As a proposed revision to the Code now explains:
“The concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex. At this time there are no definite methods for measuring full sustainability or confirming its accomplishment (whether environmental, social and/or economic). Therefore claims about a product or service being ’sustainable’ or ‘environmentally sustainable’ should not be made.”
Don’t get them wrong. The Government wants to see more and better environmental claims. It acknowledges that marketing has a huge role to play in promoting more sustainable lifestyle choices and that business must be a positive catalyst for change.
But given the changes to the ASA’s rules since September this year and from everything I continue to hear on this issue, massive proof is going to be needed to justify green claims in the future.
No one has ever yet managed to persuade the ASA that they, or their product or service, are “sustainable”, “green” or “environmentally friendly”. And woe betides anyone who tries to use any absolute claim of “zero carbon” in their marketing. (Hmm, I can’t wait to see what will happen when a ‘definition’ of zero carbon is made by CLG, but Defra bans its use…)
If you want to know what you can say and what you can’t, updated guidance on Defra’s Green Claims Code is supposed to be coming out this month.
But in the meantime it all seems to boil down to what is easily understood by the man on the street (specialist or well-informed audiences don’t count). If he understands ‘sustainable’ to mean one thing, and his mate thinks it’s another, then we have Ambiguity. And this does not sit comfortably with the ASA or the Government.
Environmental claims are often complicated or very technical. But the underlying principles are the same for all, says the ASA Council – they look at everything from a consumer’s point of view.
In its defence, the ASA says its has seen a big rise in public scepticism about carbon and climate change claims since ‘Climategate’, the scandal revealed by the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit about 12 months ago. But it seems to me the most common cause for an ASA investigation and potential corporate reprimand is still a complaint from a competitor.
Interestingly, having studied past ASA adjudications on this topic, there seem to be a few alternative ways in which environmental credentials can be promoted with a bit more legal leeway:
- Sponsorships can help to make you look greener by association (but needless to say no one is fooled by any cynical attempt to greenwash a baddie brand this way)
- PR and media information is not covered by ASA rules (but we have our own professional guidelines from bodies like the CIPR, and I see no reason why PR people should not apply the same rigour to environmental claims)
- Comparative claims can work (but only if there is a clear improvement over a previous product or a competitor and the comparison is very clear. In this context, any ‘independent’ research that backs up your claim must be entirely independent – you can’t have paid for it)
- And it looks like trade associations can have much more freedom in the claims they might make on their industries’ behalf, as they are not selling direct to the customer (but again, this is a complex area and best practice should still be observed).
I’m no lawyer, and I’ve witnessed some pretty perverse decisions on what can and cannot be said about environmental sustainability in the building industry. I will be watching with interest what gets published by Defra shortly, including its latest research on consumers’ understanding of green terms. For now, the best advice I can offer is to play it safe. Put more time into becoming a greener business than you spend on saying it.
You can also find further advice on my ‘10 top tips to avoid greenwash’ here.