Sustainability Claims: An overview of key points from recent ASA adjudications

Green and sustainability claims are under increased scrutiny from regulators, enforcement bodies and consumer activists. Whilst there is no precise UK/EU regulatory definition there are requirements not to mislead alongside guidance and published adjudications setting out standards.   

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published six core principles in making a claim:​

  1. Be truthful and accurate.​
  2. Be clear and unambiguous.​
  3. Not omit or hide important information.​
  4. Only make fair and meaningful comparisons.​
  5. Consider the full life cycle of the product.​
  6. Be substantiated.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been active in this area and a number of cases have been upheld at adjudication.  Claims should not be presented in ways that are liable to confuse consumers or to give the impression that a product or business is better for the environment than it is.

The latest Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudication on this subject upheld a complaint against Unilever Unilever UK Ltd - ASA | CAP  This was despite Clearcast stating the product benefits were set clearly within the context of Persil’s own development in the ad, and therefore the basis for the environmental claim was fully justified.  The claim at issue stated the product was “kinder to our planet”.  The ASA held that the basis of the claim “kinder to our planet” had not been made sufficiently clear. It was also emphasised that there was an absence of evidence demonstrating that the full life cycle of the product had a lesser environmental impact compared to a previous formulation.  This illustrates just how strict the ASA interpretation on environmental claims currently is and the care that should go into substantiating every part of any green claim.

An overview of the key themes that may be taken from the last year of ASA adjudications are as follows:

  • Absolute environmental claims (such as “green” or “environmentally friendly”) must be supported by a high level of substantiation.  ​
     
  • Relative claims (e.g. “greener” or “environmentally friendlier”) must be supported by verifiable evidence that proves the stated environmental benefit over comparable products.  The Advertising Codes note that such relative claims may be justified “if the advertised product provides a total environmental benefit over that of the marketer's previous product or competitor products and the basis of the comparison is clear.”​  These are comparative claims and mean the product or process has less of an environmental impact than a previous one, this should be a fair and meaningful comparison. 
     
  • Importance of not exaggerating claims.  Claims should be very precisely substantiated and not exaggerated. Claims must not mislead consumers about the product or service’s total environmental impact. Claims should ensure they do not overstate the environmental benefit of their brand and products, and should not claim that products made of plastic were “eco-friendly” or “nature friendly.”
     
  • Life Cycle & basis of claim – Claims should look at the whole life cycle of a product unless specifically stated otherwise.  Avoid the implication of a net positive environmental impact unless this can be substantiated – an alternative will be to state the actions taken to reduce the environmental impact of products. The basis of the environmental claim should be clear.

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