In February 2023, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), the UK’s self-regulating advertising authority, released an update to its guidance on “The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising” – providing businesses with a helpful steer on how to use terms such as “carbon neutral” and “net zero” and remain compliant with UK advertising regulations.

The guidance was produced as a result of research undertaken by the ASA into consumer understanding of environmental-based technology used in advertising and released its findings in October 2022.

One of the findings was that the terms “carbon neutral” and “net zero” were the most familiar claims to consumers, but there was little consensus as to what they mean and what the differences are.

What does carbon neutral or net zero mean?

Generally, the terms “carbon neutral” and “net zero” are used commonly to describe removing harmful emissions from the atmosphere (albeit the scale and type of emissions differ depending on what term you use and in what context).

It was accepted that such terms were used in sectors such as energy, automotive and air travel, where environmental issues and awareness were most prevalent.

What action do businesses need to take?

Following the October 2022 report, the updated guidance highlights that when using terms such as “carbon neutral” and “net zero”, businesses should take into account the following:

  • Ensuring claims are substantiated – Businesses should avoid making claims of “carbon neutral” and “net zero” unless it is qualified with evidence that helps the consumer understand the context in which these claims are being made.
  • Future strategies to become “carbon neutral” or “net zero”: Businesses should ensure claims on future strategies are made based on a verifiable strategy to deliver them.
  • Offsetting claims: The same rules apply here too – businesses should make sure any claims are capable of objective substantiation and should provide information about the offsetting scheme they are using.
  • Availability of information: Businesses should ensure any information about a claim relates to the main aspects of the claim being made and consumers are able to see and take this information into account before making any decision on whether to purchase or invest in a product or service. The further away or less prominent the information is, the more likely this is to mislead consumers.

The ASA has advised that it will be carrying out monitoring for up to six months, to see what impact this updated guidance has and also assess how any claims are substantiated. This essentially means greenwashing and taking steps to reduce its impact remains top of the ASA’s agenda.

How can businesses generally remain compliant with advertising regulations?

  • Have the evidence before the campaign is brought to life – Advertising is good for the economy and industry. The ASA is supportive of this, but when it comes to making environmental claims, the ASA’s advice is clear – businesses should not assume a high level of understanding when it comes to environmental claims. Terms such as “clean”, “purifying”, or “renewable” should be only used where, based on the assessment of the evidence, they would be objectively substantiated. This evidence should ideally be collated before a marketing campaign is proposed.
  • Training –Legal teams and marketing teams should be aware and familiar with the regulations which apply in the UK to their marketing campaigns. For non-broadcast advertising, such as advertising online and via social media, the Non-broadcast Code – ASA | CAP applies, and for broadcasting (television and radio) the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) applies. These are readily available on the ASA website, along with advice and guidance notes on how to be compliant with UK advertising regulations.
  • Sense check any marketing campaigns before they go live – Any claims made in marketing campaigns should be clear, not misleading or over-exaggerated, not omit key information and ensure any objective claims can be substantiated by written documentary evidence. Marketing campaigns should be creative, but it is important to check the understanding of any claims made and ensure they are backed up by evidence. The ASA offers free Bespoke Copy Advice for anyone wanting to check their advertising is compliant with the CAP Code.

The ASA has been cracking down in the past few months on greenwashing claims, a marketing strategy which makes false and misleading claims that products or services are environmentally friendly. Read our previous blog about ASA rulings on greenwashing claims here.

We’re here to help

This is only likely to continue and intensify given the ongoing research by the ASA and UK government into greenwashing.

If you would like some guidance or support with reviewing and ensuring ASA compliance with any upcoming marketing campaigns involving environmental claims, then please do get in touch.

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Published: 11th April 2023
Area: Energy

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Charlotte advises clients on a wide range of commercial issues including advertising, commercial contracts, intellectual property, IT and data protection.

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