ASA statement on the regulation of environmental claims and issues in advertising

The ASA recognises that as governments set new and ambitious targets and as the scale of the challenge to avoid catastrophic climate change becomes ever clearer, advertising and, by extension, ad regulation needs to play its part in working towards agreed climate goals.

Our reasons for focusing on this vital topic this year were amply demonstrated in August with the headline-grabbing conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report. That report concluded that human activity is unequivocally responsible for the intensifying pace of climate change, and stressed the vital importance of reaching net zero emissions.

This is why we’ve carried out a review of our regulation on this important topic, as part of our project launched earlier this year. Our review builds on the decades of regulation that the ASA has already delivered on ads that make environmental claims. It has been carried out to ensure that our regulation remains effective in the context of a society which is increasingly concerned about the impact human behaviours are having on our planet.  

Today, the ASA is pleased to announce decisions we have taken following the outcome of the first stage of our review:

  • First, later this year our sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice, will issue Advertising Guidance to industry that sets out the key principles advertisers need to follow to ensure their ads don’t mislead about the environment and are socially responsible when considering environmental issues.

    That Guidance will re-affirm that the ASA will be shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on environmental matters in the years to come and tightening up our positions on problematic ad claims where there is an evidence base to do so.  It will also make clear that our regulation is contextualised by the UK and Devolved Governments’ stretching climate targets and the UK Climate Change Committee’s priorities around the need for consumer behaviour change. This Advertising Guidance will complement the recently published Guidance on misleading environmental claims issued by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which we have worked closely with them on to develop over recent months.
  • Secondly, we are commencing a series of enquiries into specific issues starting with the Climate Change Committee’s identified priority areas requiring carbon reduction. These include: aviation, cars, waste, animal-based foods and heating. 

    Our work will focus on energy, heating and transport issues to begin with. That will include partnership working with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on their current enquiry into green energy tariff reform. We’ll then move onto the issue of waste (i.e. ‘recyclable’/’recycling’, ‘biodegradable’/’compostable’ and “plastic alternative” claims) in spring 2022, and then onto meat-based and other forms of food sustainability issues later in that year. We’ll be looking closely at current advertising claims in each of those areas, using a range of tools including technology-assisted monitoring. We’ll work systematically, reporting on our findings, and then address any concerns we discover using a blend of activities: investigation, research and partnership work with organisations with whom we work closely, such as the CMA. We anticipate producing new issue-specific Guidance for businesses in the light of this work.   
  • Thirdly, we will commission research this autumn into consumer understanding of Carbon Neutral and Net Zero claims and research to understand consumer perceptions of Hybrid claims in the electric vehicle market. These have both been identified as priority areas to explore through a review of intelligence we’ve carried out over the last three months, and we expect that research will inform additional Guidance next year. Further research pieces on other topics will follow, in 2022.

Why have we reached these decisions?

Our review findings

We’ve spent the last few months carrying out a comprehensive review of our rules and guidance to ensure they are still fit for purpose to meet these challenges. In doing that, we’ve reviewed the regulation of advertising that touches on environmental issues across the globe. We’ve also analysed the legislative and policy landscape to ensure that our work in this area is aligned to the priorities identified by climate change experts and legislators.

That context is absolutely key when looking at how ads and ad regulation should respond to the climate emergency. 

What is that context?

In 2019, the UK set a statutory target of reaching net zero carbon emissions (relative to 1990 levels) by 2050, and in 2016 signed the Paris Agreement, a treaty in which nearly 200 countries have committed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C.

Meanwhile this summer the UK Government went even further, setting a legally binding target of a 78% reduction by 2035; and while the devolved nations are included in this, Wales has set its own legislative target for net zero by or before 2050, and Scotland by 2045. Northern Ireland also introduced a Bill in March 2021 in line with the Scottish deadline.

Alongside these ambitious targets, the UK’s Climate Change Committee, which produces government recommendations and targets for net zero, has established as a necessity the reduction of consumption emissions which will require broad behavioural changes in society.  

Their Sixth Carbon Budget of 9 December 2020 stated that over 40% of the requirements to meet the 2035 targets requires some degree of change from consumers and their Behaviour Change, Public Engagement and Net Zero report of October 2019 specifically highlighted consumption emissions from aviation, cars, waste, animal-based foods and heating as being priority areas for carbon reduction. 

We looked back at our work regulating environmental claims. We have a long track record of calling out misleading advertising in this area. Our review found that the types of misleadingness issues encountered and our decision making is in line with other advertising regulatory bodies across Europe and further afield. Whilst it was positive that our decision making is consistent with others, it was also apparent that the issues encountered when making claims that touch on the environment can be complex. There is significant scope for businesses to make mistakes, and to mislead, when making environmental claims, which can lead to consumer detriment and harm to the planet.

On the other hand, our review found that social responsibility issues (for example, ads that encourage unsustainable behaviours or behaviours likely to harm the environment) have not been a key concern for those who complain to us or otherwise encountered much by us, to date (or by our regulatory partners in Europe and beyond). But with the signal being sent from Government and experts that consumer behaviour change is key to achieving net zero, this is an area that we believe will require greater regulatory scrutiny in future.

Our thorough review of other ad regulators’ rules and current and planned legislation reassuringly found that we have sufficient and comprehensive rules already in place to tackle misleading and socially irresponsible ads about the environment. However, the broad context outlined above indicates that over the next few years businesses are going to need to take more account of changes that are likely to occur to meet government targets. Expectations are rising for businesses to play a more prominent role in encouraging responsible consumer consumption behaviours.  Businesses are increasingly wanting to burnish their eco-credentials, but the issues encountered in this area can be complex and hard for them to navigate.  

For these reasons we’ve concluded that a blend of issue-based enquiries, research and, subject to the evidence base, new guidance to help businesses get their advertising right are called for at this time.

Supporting industry to get their environmental messages right

We’re signalling that we intend to go further, to crack down on misleading and socially irresponsible environmental advertising and to do so in the context framed by Government and key priorities identified by experts.

But we’ll also play a supportive and consultative role with businesses and industry, including the Advertising Association and other civil society organisations, as they drive a greener agenda in advertising as a whole. To that end, this autumn in the lead-up to COP 26 in Glasgow, we’re planning new eLearning resources and other training materials and learning opportunities. We’ll be embedding in all our communications to businesses a reminder to visit a new resources page on our website which will enable them to learn more about how to make ads that stay within the environmental rules and which encourage more responsible messaging around consumption.

Final thoughts

There are many good examples of UK businesses promoting accurate and responsible messages that touch on the environment. Advertising has an important part to play in encouraging responsible behaviours and to help consumers make the right choices. And as ever, it’s a fine balance, given that we regulate ads, not the underlying products or services themselves, and our role does not involve banning whole categories of such advertising.

Finally, we remain committed to hearing from stakeholders and the public. If you have a concern about an environmental claim or issue in an ad, you can complain to the ASA or, instead, complete our new quick and easy report a concern tool which we’ve set up to enable consumers to more quickly provide us with intelligence on what you think may be a problem with an ad concerning the environment.  

Our announcement sends a clear signal that the ASA will be shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on advertising issues that relate to climate change and the environment in the coming months and years. We will provide further updates as our work progresses.

See our new climate change and the environment page

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