It is a sign of how quickly the regulation of environmental (green) claims is evolving in the UK.
World leaders have been talking about Net Zero for years, sometimes in abstract terms.
During COP26 in late 2021, when the UK took its turn at the helm, the number one priority was stated to be: "Ensuring promises on emissions reductions are kept to keep 1.5 degrees alive: That every country honours the commitment in the Glasgow Climate Pact to strengthen their climate change targets to align with the Paris temperature goal as necessary in 2022, as well as for delivering on their net zero commitments and 2030 emissions reduction targets – particularly through policies to end coal power, halt deforestation and transition to clean vehicles"
A year before that, in November 2020, the ASA issued a statement to "welcome [a] milestone with the Advertising Association’s announcement of their Ad Net Zero plan. This plan is a big step forward towards committing the ad industry to commit to minimise their own carbon footprint in the creation of ads and is to be applauded. Importantly the plan also commits the ad industry to influence the creative content of ads to promote more sustainable messages". The ASA's announcement was made under the heading Supporting Ad Net Zero.
The future's bright, the future's green
Fast forward to February 2023, and the renewable winds of change are blowing.
The ASA has made clear it is coming after advertisers that make unqualified "net zero" and "carbon neutral" (and similar) claims in ads.
Such claims have technically been prohibited for a while when they are unqualified, but the ASA has identified that consumer understanding of such claims is 'patchier' than was originally thought, and has made it a top priority to tackle such claims.
I point out the authorities' complicated history with these claims (including their own occasional use of these claims) not to criticise the government or ASA, but rather to acknowledge that these complex claims have been made by leading authorities but apparently have never been universally understood by consumers.
Consumer understanding, the regulatory priorities and approach, and perhaps even the underlying rules, will keep evolving over the next few years and beyond.
The ASA's latest guidance
I welcome the ASA's approach of issuing updated guidance ahead of taking regulatory action against those that make these types of claims, particularly when it comes to companies that are genuinely making a difference to reduce their impact on the environment, even when that involves a complex and evolving blend of reduction and off-setting.
The latest guidance isn't a radical departure, but is useful to gauge the ASA's priorities and approach in this area.
So what does it say...
In light of the low understanding and lack of consensus around the meaning of carbon neutral and net zero claims, CAP and BCAP advise advertisers to take into account the following guidance, which draws on key principles of the CMA guidance, and, if followed, means that claims are less likely to mislead:
- Avoid using unqualified carbon neutral, net zero or similar claims. Information explaining the basis for these claims helps consumers’ understanding, and such information should therefore not be omitted. [To avoid the double-negative here, such information should be included, usually within the ad].
- Marketers should ensure that they include accurate information about whether (and the degree to which) they are actively reducing carbon emissions or are basing claims on offsetting, to ensure that consumers do not wrongly assume that products or their manufacture generate no or few emissions.
- Claims based on future goals relating to reaching net zero or achieving carbon neutrality should be based on a verifiable strategy to deliver them.
- Where claims are based on offsetting, they should comply with the usual standards of evidence for objective claims set out in this guidance, and marketers should provide information about the offsetting scheme they are using.
- Where it is necessary to include qualifying information about a claim, that information should be sufficiently close to the main aspects of the claim for consumers to be able to see it easily and take account of it before they make any decision. The less prominent any qualifying information is, and the further away it is from any main claim being made, the more likely the claim will mislead consumers.
Where do we go from here?
For the next six months, the ASA will monitor the use of these claims in advertising to assess the impact of the latest guidance on carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising. They will also gather information to assess how such claims are being substantiated.
If that monitoring concludes that carbon neutral/net zero claims are being made but the types of evidence that underpins them is questionable, the ASA will invite CAP to launch a review which would seek to provide guidance about what forms of evidence are more or less likely to be acceptable to substantiate such claims in advertising. That review will take account of expert insights, policy developments in the UK and other jurisdictions and, where appropriate, consultation with interested parties.
The ASA says it is aware that some organisations are making carbon neutral and net zero claims that are entirely unqualified and do not explain the basis on which they are being achieved, and as these breach the existing rules, the ASA will not wait for its wider assessment of the industry before taking action against such claims - it promises to take proactive action against advertisers making such claims.
Here is a link to the ASA's latest guidance, which is summarised above: Updated environment guidance: carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising - ASA | CAP