Holding back the unstoppable tide of green claims

The Advertising Standards Authority is struggling to hold the line on the advertising of environmental benefits. In June, the Authority put out a series of instructions trying to impose clearer conditions on advertisers. But it continues to have to adjudicate on a series of difficult decisions. Last week saw a wind power developer taken to task for over-estimating the carbon savings from turbines. The Authority had to decide which type of power station would produce less power as a result of a new wind farm – coal or gas. It took advice from the National Grid and proceeded to tick npower off, even though the power company was following rules previously set down by the ASA itself. In at least one other country, the advertising regulator has thrown in the towel and told some advertisers simply to stop advertising green claims. Reuters reports that Norway’s Consumer Ombudsman has told car advertisers that ‘We ask that…phrases such as “environmentally friendly”, “green”, “clean”, “environmental car”, “natural” or similar descriptions not be used in marketing cars.’

We cannot be far away from this sort of rule in the UK. Green claims are almost invariably contentious and difficult to prove. We simply don’t have an accounting system that can deal yet with carbon. Advertisers are going to be forced to avoid any but the most clear-cut and well-documented savings.


The ASA June guidance The Authority’s stance on green advertising is expressed very clearly:

  • Get your facts right: advertising claims should be backed up with documentary evidence.
  • Knowledge is developing all the time. Don’t present claims as being universally accepted if the science is inconclusive.
  • Don’t use pseudo-science, or terms that will not be generally understood by the readers of your advertisement.
  • Avoid sweeping or absolute claims such as ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘wholly biodegradable’. It’s unlikely that you will be able to prove your product has no environmental impact.

Taken at their face value, these guidelines should stop most green advertising. It will still be okay to say that a new refrigerator reduces electricity consumption, but anything more complex should be banned. Nevertheless the stream of spurious claims continues unabate

It is not entirely the advertisers' fault. The npower wind farm decision last week illustrated how difficult it will for advertisers to stick within the guidelines. npower had used a figure for the average carbon content of grid electricity when saying that a new wind farm would reduce emissions by 33,000 tonnes. It based its calculation accurately on previous guidance from the Authority issued in response to a previous complaint. The old decision had allowed a renewables company to claim big carbon savings because wind power replaced coal. ‘Aha!’ said the ASA, ‘Haven’t you people at npower noticed that these days coal stations are used all the time and it is the gas-fired stations that provide the marginal generating capacity? You should have used the much lower savings from replacing gas as a fuel for your wind power figures. In future, work out the emissions from the marginal electricity generator (the one that gets turned on last when electricity demand rises) and use that number.’

It made this decision based on advice from the National Grid. But the relative prices of coal and gas change every week. Any conscientious advertiser will now have to avoid claiming anything other than the minimum savings from renewable power.

The Authority’s tougher stance should also cover advertising of the carbon savings of other products. But an advertiser determined to avoid criticism from the ASA can throw huge amounts of evidence into the battle and delay a final decision. In April 2007, I complained to the Authority about an advertisement for the Ford Focus ‘dual fuel’ car, which can run on 85% ethanol. The company claimed that the car could save 80% of the carbon from petrol. In effect it was therefore saying that the 85% ethanol had virtually no fossil fuel overhead. As the article on biofuels in this newsletter shows, this is a highly questionable assertion. In fact, the 80% figure was much higher than 40% the company had claimed in a press release the previous month.

After a couple of months, the Authority issued a draft decision agreeing with my complaint, but for reasons other than the ones I had specified. The Authority claimed, quite correctly, that the 85% was spurious because the fuel buyer can only get 85% ethanol in a handful of petrol stations in the UK. Unless one drives in circles around small areas of East Anglia or Somerset, you would have to fill up the car with ordinary petrol, saving nothing.

Ford complained. The ASA hadn’t ‘upheld’ the complaint I had actually made. It had invented another one. The car maker sensibly insisted we argue the issue I had initially raised. Since June, Ford and I have been exchanging vigorous letters through the ASA debating whether it is theoretically conceivable that the Focus Flexi Fuel could save 80% of carbon emissions. The Authority is growing ever quieter as the discussion drifts into whether the straw output from a wheat field should be included in the energy balance for ethanol production. I am out my depth, I know Ford is, and I suspect the ASA is too. This debate will probably go on until one side tires, and I have to admit it will probably be me.

Results like this probably aren't good for consumers or for advertisers. A cynical public will grow increasingly suspicious of ever more outlandish claims. The ASA should simply copy the Norwegians and require a much higher standard of proof. If this restricts green advertising, so be it.