Updated environment guidance: carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising

Today, CAP and BCAP have published updates to their advertising guidance: The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising to include guidance on the use of carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising, which reflects key principles of the Competition and Markets Authority’s guidance on environmental claims on goods and services (the CMA guidance).

ASA research

In 2021, the ASA’s Climate Change and the Environment project identified:

consumer understanding of “carbon neutral” and “net zero” claims in advertising, as a priority area for research, given their increasing prevalence and the potential for consumers to be misled by them. The research that was subsequently commissioned included the following published key findings:

  • There is a broad spectrum of consumer engagement on environmental issues, influencing their understanding of, and reaction to, environmental claims
  • Carbon neutral and net zero were the most commonly encountered claims, but there was little consensus as to their meaning. There were calls for significant reform to simplify and standardise the definitions of such terms and for claims to be policed by an official body, such as government
  • Participants tended to believe that carbon neutral claims implied that an absolute reduction in carbon emissions had taken place or would take place. When the potential role of offsetting in claims was revealed, this could result in consumers feeling that they had been misled
  • Claims in air travel, energy and automotive advertising tended to attract more attention, and the potential role of offsetting, when revealed, could result in greater disappointment. Participant reactions suggested the need for transparency is potentially greater in those sectors
  • Participants called for more transparency about offsetting and target dates in ads

Updated guidance

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.
  • 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. For further information, see CAP’s guidance on the use of qualifications.

Next steps

Following publication of updated Advertising Guidance, we will carry out monitoring for up to six months, through which we will assess the impact of the Advertising Guidance on carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising. We 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.

In the meantime, the ASA is aware that some organisations are making carbon neutral and net zero claims which are entirely unqualified and do not explain the basis on which they are being achieved. Unqualified claims are likely to breach existing rules, and the ASA will be taking proactive action immediately to address such claims.

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