“Greenwashing” – that is, environmental claims that are not fully or properly substantiated, or that contain false information, omit critical information, are exaggerated or are presented in an unclear, ambiguous and/or inaccurate manner – continues to be a major focus of scrutiny across all sectors, and the advertising industry is no exception.  The volume of statements and claims regarding the sustainability credentials of businesses’ goods and services, often made in the context of advertising and marketing, is increasing rapidly.

At the same time, the interests of regulators, consumers, and other stakeholders, in combatting misleading, “greenwashed” environmental claims has grown commensurately.  According to analysis conducted by the Independent, over the past 12 months alone, the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (“ASA“) has found 16 advertising campaigns to have exaggerated the green credentials of, or made unsubstantiated environmental claims about, the advertised brands.

As a consequence of this growing interest, the World Federation of Advertisers (“WFA“) – a global organisation that represents the common interests of advertisers and marketers – has issued landmark guidance on how brands can ensure that any environmental claims featured in their marketing communications are credible for both consumers and regulators (the “Guidance“).  The Guidance, produced with the support of the International Council for Advertising Self-Regulation, the European Advertising Standards Alliance and the UK’s ASA (amongst others), is the first guidance that has been issued at an international level with regard to making environmental claims, and represents a highly significant development in the context of growing efforts to combat greenwashing.

What are “environmental claims”?

As discussed in our earlier blog post, environmental claims encompass, in the present context, statements, or claims, made by businesses that suggest their goods or services have a positive or neutral environmental impact, or less of a negative environmental impact than other similar goods or services.  Given the increasing importance attributed by consumers to the sustainability credentials of the goods and services that they purchase, it is increasingly recognised that there is a considerable risk that, in response to these strong consumer preferences and changing demands, advertisers and marketers may “greenwash” environmental claims about their brands.

Purpose of the Guidance

Countries are increasingly developing rules and guidelines aimed at combatting greenwashing in the context of environmental claims from advertisers and marketers.  In September 2021, for example, the UK released a “‘Green Claims Code” to assist businesses comply with their obligations under sector/product-specific rules and general consumer protection laws, such as the Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, when making environmental claims (discussed in our earlier blog post).  Similar guidance, and rules, have increasingly emerged in other jurisdictions also.

In the interests of seeking to align the various legislative initiatives, self-regulatory codes and other relevant industry codes of different jurisdictions across the globe, the WFA produced the Guidance to provide advertisers and marketers with a clear set of rules, at an international level, to which to adhere when making environmental claims.

Contents of the Guidance

The Guidance identifies six key principles, the purpose of which, if followed, is to increase the likelihood of environmental claims being, and being perceived as, reliable and transparent, and reducing the risk of allegations of greenwashing.  These principles are as follows:

  1. Claims must not be likely to mislead, and the basis for them must be clear;
  2. Marketers must hold robust evidence for all claims likely to be regarded as objective and capable of substantiation;
  3. Marketing communications must not omit material information. Where time or space is limited, marketers must use alternative means to make qualifying information readily accessible to the audience and indicate where it can be accessed.
  4. Marketers must base general environmental claims on the full lifecycle of their product or business, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the limits of the lifecycle.
  5. Products compared in marketing communications must meet the same needs or be intended for the same purpose. The basis for comparisons must be clear and allow the audience to make an informed decision about the products compared.
  6. Marketers must include all information relating to the environmental impact of advertised products that is required by law, regulators or Codes to which they are signatories.

The publication of the Guidance follows the WFA’s April 2021 launch of its Planet Pledge initiative, designed to “put marketers in a position where they can help brands’ responses to climate change, encourage efforts across the wider marketing industry and help consumers act more sustainably when using their products and services“.  There are now 27 signatories to the Pledge – representing a total of approximately USD 50 billion in cumulative global marketing spend – who have committed to follow the principles set out in the Guidance.

In time, the WFA intends to turn the Guidance into an online e-learning tool to help Planet Pledge signatories and, subsequently, the broader industry navigate the increasingly scrutinised space of making environmental claims.  Advertisers and marketers from across the globe would be well advised, therefore, adhere to these principles when making environmental claims to mitigate the prospect of receiving accusations of greenwashing.