The Committee of Advertising Practice’s updated guidance makes clear the importance of knowing your climate-conscious ABCs

As terms like ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’ begin to work their way into advertising, ensuring that you know your emission reductions from your offset emissions could help you make sure your search for more sustainable choices is not derailed
The Committee of Advertising Practice’s updated guidance makes clear the importance of knowing your climate-conscious ABCs

The changing landscape of green advertising

Since the first report on Gen Z and Sustainability was released by First Insight (3 years ago), Gen x consumers’ preference for buying from sustainable brands has climbed by about 25%, and their willingness to spend more on sustainable items has increased by 42%. The will of consumers to pursue more sustainable options transcends generational boundaries; everyone from baby boomers to zoomers[1] are willing to pay a premium for products that meet their climate-conscious cravings.

At the inception of the First Insights survey, 58% of consumers across the board were willing to pay more. Now, just over three years since the first polling was undertaken, nearly 90% of Gen X customers said that a 10% increase in cost for a sustainable item would not put them off, a rise from 34% in the original poll.[i] The market for green products has not come as a shock. As early as 2009, research suggested that 80% of marketers and advertisers were preparing to increase their spending on green advertising to cash in on the growing consumer sentiment.[ii] Regrettably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, not all green advertising was created equal. The fact remains that advertising is designed to sell products, and that will always be its priority. Whilst it is certainly not impossible to unite the green agenda with the central aim of revenue, it is very easy to abuse the former in pursuit of the latter. With Harvard Business Review reporting that 42% of all green claims were ‘exaggerated, false or deceptive’, greenwashing on a wider scale is rife. As such, any of the 42% of green claims presented in the form of advertising will not be all that they seem.[iii] To combat this, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) have released updated guidance to include sections that address use of the terms ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’.[iv]

ASA’s updated guidance

In 2021 the ASA set out to research how the increase in the popularity of terms like ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’ presented new potential for consumers to be misled. They found:

  • Consumer involvement in environmental concerns ranges widely, which affects how they perceive and respond to environmental claims.
  • The most frequent claims were carbon neutral and net zero, although there was no agreement on what they meant. There were proposals for substantial reform to streamline and standardise the definitions of these terms as well as for claims to be regulated by an official authority, such as the government.
  • Participants tended to think that assertions of carbon neutrality suggested that carbon emissions have or would absolutely decrease. Consumers can feel misled if the offsetting in claims turns out to have a larger role than previously thought.
  • Claims in energy, car and tourism advertising tend to garner more attention, and when offsetting is shown, the disappointment might be much greater. Participants' responses showed that some industries might require more transparency than others.
  • Participants urged for greater openness regarding offsets and target dates in advertisements.[v]

An example of the kind of issues that the ASA is trying to address follows. A voiceover in a radio advertisement for Shell said, "Although you might not be able to see it, your small actions can have a real impact with Shell. Drive carbon-neutral by filling up and using Shell Go+ today. Make the change. Drive carbon-neutral."

The ASA was aware that Shell Go+ was a loyalty programme that required customers to sign up for and then present their membership card when making a transaction. In those instances, Shell would make up for the carbon emissions caused by the fuel purchase. However, the ASA did not feel satisfied that a time-constrained radio advertisement could adequately explain this, and as a result, felt that the term "Drive carbon-neutral" was misleading.[vi]

Another example of an advertisement that was deemed by the ASA to be unsubstantiated in its claims was the below, from Ryanair.

Source: Ryanair

With the aviation sector a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, consumers are aware that sustainable choices in this area could have a huge impact. However the claims were deemed to be unsubstantiated and based on assumptions about the age of aircraft and their efficiency, but after the ASA discredited the advert, it was no longer able to run in the above form.[vii] However, it does leave us wondering, how many tickets were bought as a result?

Increasing your carbon competence can help you find the choices you seek

If you find yourself as one of the consumers that are after more sustainable choices, but worry that a brand’s claims may not be as green as they seem, then there is no better way to navigate an increasingly greenwashed world of advertisement than to increase your own knowledge about the climate crisis and its solutions. If that sounds like you, then you’re in the right place;


[1] Zoomers refers to Gen Z, born 1997 – 2012, baby boomers refers to those born 1946 to 1964 (Beford research)

[i] First Insight- The state of consumer spending: Gen Z influencing all generations to male sustainability-first purchasing decisions

[ii] Electronic Green Journal- Could perceived risks explain the ‘green gap’ in green product consumption?

[iii] Harvard Business Review- How Greenwashing Affects the Bottom Line

[iv] ASA- Updated environment guidance: carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising

[v] ASA- The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising

[vi] The Drum- 8 times brands fell foul of ASA for ‘greenwashing’

[vii] Ibid


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