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"Sounds good, but what does it mean?" Consumers' response to green claims

27 October 2022

As regulators continue to shine a spotlight on the risks of making green claims, the ASA published research on 20 October that highlights the need for transparency and clarity when talking about sustainability.

The ASA research report "Environmental Claims in Advertising – Qualitative Research Report" can be accessed here.

Pick me, I'm green

Regardless of personal attitude and engagement, very few are unaware of the headline-dominating discussions and debates relating to climate change and sustainability. Alongside an increasing number of consumers wanting to take sustainability seriously, an increasing number of businesses are attempting to promote their environmental credentials in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors. However, whilst consumers recognise that green claims have the potential to educate, enable and encourage environmental responsibility, the ASA's research highlights challenges that currently limit their value. 

An alien language

In a blow to advertisers, one revealing revelation in the ASA's research is consumers' limited understanding of sustainability terminology used in advertising. Various terms were explored in the research but the popular terms "carbon neutral" and "net zero" took centre stage, with consumers often assuming the claims were absolute and referred to a direct reduction of emissions. This led to consumers feeling deceived when learning that the terms were not as clear cut and were often dependent on offsetting or other complex and opaque processes. Further confusion and distrust resulted from the lack of formal definitions and a range of similar terminology. The ASA reported that overall comprehension of sustainability terminology was low, with even the most environmentally engaged consumers stating that it needs to be more transparent.

Gunning for greenwashing

Last year the CMA published its Green Claims Code with the aim of helping businesses avoid making misleading green claims. Earlier this year it launched an investigation into the fashion sector (whilst other sectors nervously wait to see who will be next). Whilst greenwashing challenges have more commonly been reported in the fashion and food sectors, no one is immune. Earlier this week the ASA ruled that two HSBC ads, that highlighted specific environmental initiatives, were misleading as they omitted material information that would affect consumers' understanding of the overall message - namely that HSBC was continuing to significantly finance investments in businesses and industries that emitted substantial levels of greenhouse gases.

Aggressive regulatory crackdown on greenwashing can therefore put businesses in a tight spot: whilst the aim is to ensure that only legitimate sustainability claims are made, the ASA's research found that consumers' perceived prevalence of greenwashing has the potential to weaken the credibility of all such claims, legitimate or not. 

The bottom line 

The ASA's research demonstrates that businesses have perhaps been speaking the wrong language to consumers. Couple this with a lack of consumer trust and businesses will be left asking themselves "what is the point of making claims that consumers don't believe or understand?" 

Earlier in the week, DWF Director Anne Marie Taylor discussed the challenges of making  green claims. In addition to the importance of focusing on making specific, substantiated claims, the ASA's research adds to the argument that there really is no safe space for green claims.

If you want to discuss your green claims or advertising approach, including making green claims, or the underlying compliance of your products, please get in touch with one of our experts below.

Authors: Dominic Watkins, Anne Marie Taylor and Abigail Reay

Further Reading