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How environmental guidelines affect your advertising

Tools & Resources

Advertising plays a huge part in shaping the opinions of your customers. So, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has guidance on ads which feature misleading environmental and social responsibility claims. Here, we discuss how these guidelines affect businesses as well as why it’s important to follow them. 

These guidelines were established in response to increasingly exaggerated claims made by businesses regarding their environmental practices, particularly in light of the growing global emphasis on climate change and net zero objectives. 

The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcasting Committees of Advertising Practice (BCAP) stress that advertising plays a pivotal role in promoting more sustainable behaviour and improved business practices. Importantly, the updates do not prevent marketers from making environmental claims about their products or services. Instead, they provide guidance on factors that can improve or worsen a company’s compliance with the CAP and BCAP codes. 

Whilst it might feel there is lots to catch up on, hopefully this overview will lighten the load by improving your understanding of environmental claims in advertising. 

Click each heading for details: 

1

What is the code?

The first step to understanding environmental and social responsibility claims in advertising is knowing what the basis of the code is. This can act as a useful foundation for approaching all marketing content.  

The code states: 

Environmental claims are likely to mislead if the basis of the claim is not clear. Some information will be necessary for consumers to understand the basis of the claim, and unqualified claims could mislead if they omit this significant information.’ 

2

Key guidelines and best practice

1. Consider consumers' understanding: Marketers must consider consumers' knowledge and how they are likely to interpret any environmental claims made.

Assess your advertising as if the audience has no assumed knowledge and try to avoid using generalised language that can easily be misinterpreted.  

2. Using natural imagery: Be cautious when using imagery of the natural world that might imply significant contributions to reducing greenhouse gases.

3. Clarify recycling claims: When making recycling claims, ensure that recycling information is clear and any limitations are disclosed.

For example, if only certain parts of your product can be recycled, make it clear and encourage customers to separate recyclable and non-recyclable waste.  

The same applies if your product uses recycled materials. State how much of the product is made up of recycled materials, and what those materials are. 

4. Specific consumer action: Adverts should clearly indicate the specific consumer action or behavioural change that will result in environmental benefits

5.Provide sufficient information: Provide sufficient information about any specific standards claimed to be met.

For example, if you’re claiming to have reduced the amount of waste produced, think about including how it’s been achieved, and how much it’s being reduced by. 

6. Balance environmental impact: Marketers should balance information about the business's ongoing contributions to environmental harm, especially in sectors where consumers may be less aware of a business's overall environmental impact (for example the financial sector funding high-carbon industries).

It’s best to look at the bigger picture and assess whether your ads are representative of the entire company before making any claims. 

7. Support absolute claims: Claims such as "environmentally friendly" or "sustainable" must be supported by evidence.

Consider what you could show as proof. Any truthful claim should have some form of measurable impact. Maybe it prevents ‘X’ amount of carbon from being produced, or reduces ‘X’ amount of waste? 

8. Clarify scope of claims: Environmental claims relating to specific products should clarify their scope, preventing them from being misunderstood as representative of the entire business.

9. Historical environmental impact: Ads that portray a business's negative environmental impact as being historical may be misleading if the business still has a significant negative impact.

Creating a positive change takes time. Make sure it is clear that whilst changes are being made, there is still some way to go in your net zero journey, and although your company isn’t completely there just yet, you are committed to seeing it through. 

10. Contextualise environmental initiatives: Information about environmental initiatives should contextualise the business’ environmental claims and provide details about the initiative's role in the business's net zero plan, including how and when net-zero will be achieved.

The key to navigating these guidelines is to be clear and truthful in any claims made by your business. As always, honesty is the best policy. 

3

What happens if a business breaches the code?

When ASA determines that a business has made a misleading or false environmental claim, the company will have to fix or withdraw the advert. 

Alternatively, ASA has a range of sanctions at its disposal depending on the nature of the advertisement, such as collaborating with social media platforms to remove non-compliant content. 

Their rulings are also made public on a weekly basis, which can generate negative publicity and damage the reputation of businesses found in breach of these rules. 

In cases where advertisers persistently make false or misleading claims, ASA may get other statutory enforcement bodies involved, such as Trading Standards, for further action. 

Remember, you might not get it right every time. Try to be clear, honest and set context in your claims, but welcome feedback when it comes and work towards fixing any issues. 

These updates show a continued commitment to transparency and accuracy in environmental advertising and should be seen as valuable resource for businesses looking to communicate their green efforts responsibly- not a barrier. 

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