The companies that thought they could get away with misleading environmental claims and many that still do.
The term ‘greenwashing’ – first floated back in the mid-1980s – has become an increasingly popular word in recent times. It’s used to describe giving a false impression, or providing misleading information, about a company’s environmental credentials.
Big brands want to be seen as environmentally-conscious, even if that means stretching the truth. Fortunately, though, regulatory bodies and advertising standard agencies around the world are starting to challenge this habit, and a lot of companies’ green-touting adverts are shut down almost as soon as they make it out of their respective marketing departments.
Here are five of the biggest offenders.
Back in February, no-frills airline Ryanair ran a campaign across press, TV and radio claiming to be Europe’s “lowest emissions airline”. This drew criticism for two reasons. Firstly, airlines by their very nature are not ‘low emissions’. Secondly, the data Ryanair used to back up its claim had been sourced from 2011, which the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) ruled was “therefore of little value as substantiation for a comparison made in 2019”. Despite Ryanair’s protests, the campaign was shut down. And as a side note, the airline is one of Europe’s top polluters and the only company in the top ten that doesn’t burn coal!
BP’s ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ campaign – the oil giant’s biggest global campaign for more than a decade – came under fire in 2019 when the company was accused of misleading the public by focusing on its low carbon energy products. Complainants said the adverts gave the impression that BP was a renewables-based company, when in fact more than 96% of its annual spend goes on oil and gas. The company decided to pull the campaign after environmental lawyers ClientEarth made a legal complaint, and it later emerged the adverts would have been shut down anyway if they hadn’t.
This one dates back to 2008, but the audacity of the claims made by Shell far overshadow any defence of ‘But we didn’t know any better back then!’ According to the oil giant, its massive Canadian tar sands project – covering 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta and containing nearly 173 billion barrels of oil – was ‘sustainable’. Despite the criticism faced by this incredibly bold claim, Shell doubled down on its stance, claiming that the project was playing a vital role in “helping to meet the world's growing energy needs in economic, social and environmentally responsible ways.” The ASA disagreed, noting that it had seen no data to show how Shell was trying to limit the impact of the project.
In 2017, carmaker BMW ran a paid-for advert on Facebook touting the alleged eco-benefits of its i3 electric car. According to a voiceover on the video, “Having driven petrol guzzling cars before, I realised that it is now time to switch to an electric car. With zero emissions, the i3 really is a clean car and helps to give back to the environment”. The problem was, the i3 came with the option of a small petrol engine to help maintain charge. Whilst the carbon emissions of the i3 are considerably lower than a conventional petrol or diesel car, it couldn’t really be deemed ‘zero emissions’, nor could its customers really ‘give back’ to the environment by driving it. The ad was subsequently pulled by the ASA.
Ancol Pet Products
It’s not just major household brands that get into hot water for their greenwashing antics. Pet product company Ancol ran an advert in 2018, claiming that its biodegradable dog waste bags helped to “lessen your dog’s impact on the environment”. Following a period of extensive research, however, it was found that when buried in landfill (as they were more likely to be discarded in park bins), the bags were no more eco-friendly than standard bags. The advert was deemed misleading by the ASA and banned.
And two that should have aired…
There’s no doubt that greenwashing is a serious problem. Muddying the waters of the climate change conversation and creating distrust does nothing to help drive meaningful change. But neither does playing down the seriousness of the situation. The climate crisis is a very real and i and some companies’ campaigns have been designed to reflect that. Unfortunately, these adverts have also faced criticism.
Discount supermarket Iceland and environmental organisation Greenpeace teamed up in 2018 to rebadge an animated short film featuring the devastating impacts of palm oil growing on orangutans and rainforest habitats. After being aired on TV, the advert faced a barrage of abuse from those claiming it was “too political”. In the end, the advert was pulled, but not because of its content. Instead – and even though it had been debadged – the video was found to have breached the political ad prohibition in the Communications Act 2003 due to its association with Greenpeace, deemed to be a body “whose object is wholly or mainly of a political nature”. It’s still available to view online though, where it’s been watched more than 6.2 million times.
Dutch company VanMoof came under fire recently for an advert encouraging people to “ride the future” with its latest e-bike. The advert features a shiny black car, upon which are the reflected images of chimneys, factories, traffic jams and the flashing lights of emergency response vehicles. France’s advertising watchdog ARPP subsequently wrote to VanMoof to say: “Some images in the reflection of the car are, in our opinion, unbalanced and discredit the entire car sector. The images of factories/chimneys and an accident create a climate of fear. So they will have to be adapted.” The French advertising code prohibits the exploitation of fear and suffering in commercials, so those aware of the devastating impact of climate change might call this ruling somewhat ironic.
The bottom line
Marketing works, which is why the advertising industry is so important in the fight against global warming. Increasingly the companies that want to pull the wool over our eyes are facing challenges yet many companies still remain free to promote high carbon products, such as SUVs. That’s why a new initiative, called Badadvertising is so timely, as it hopes to ban dangerous advertising campaigns.
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