A TV ad for Severn Trent Water, seen on 28 September 2022, featured a voice-over that stated, “This isn’t just any old water. This is Severn Trent water. Our water. That’s why we’re working towards protecting it, nature and our future by planting a bucket load of trees. One point three million in fact. And we’ve planted the town green with 72 tiny forests to keep our grand-kids grand-kids connected with nature. Let’s do right by our environment, our community, our water. Get involved at wonderfulontap.co.uk”. The ad included various scenes of bodies of water, people planting trees and people spending time in nature.
IssueTwo complainants challenged whether the ad was misleading, because it omitted significant information about Severn Trent Water’s history of releasing sewage into the environment.
Severn Trent Water Ltd (Severn Trent) said that the ad made a limited claim regarding a specific aspect of their activities – planting trees ‒ and encouraged viewers to get involved. The claims in the ad were not retrospective and they did not believe that claims that related to current and future activities had to include historical information.
The language used in the ad was clearly forward looking and stated that they were “working towards” a goal, which was followed by the specific activity (planting trees) which was helping them to achieve that. They believed that the reference to “Let’s do right by our environment” could not be taken out of the context of the planting of trees. The ads focus was on the trees they had already, and would in future, plant, and the call to action to viewers for them to get on board so that collectively they could do more. They did not believe that viewers would infer any form of broader environmental claim about Severn Trent’s overall impact on the environment or interpret the ad as relating to historic events.
Not withstanding that the ad did not make any claims regarding river protection or waste management, they said they had joined with another water company to improve river health. They said that, in 2021, which was the most recent year for which data was available, they had received the highest four-star rating from the Environment Agency, and were one of the top performers of all water companies for preventing pollutions as measured by the Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT). When more storm and ground water entered the sewer system than the pipes were designed for, combined storm overflows (CSOs) acted as safety valves to stop homes and businesses from flooding after heavy rain. CSOs were widely constructed up until the 1970s and were common throughout Europe. The discharges they made were permitted and regulated by the Environment Agency so as not to have a detrimental impact on rivers. Discharges from CSOs were not raw sewage, the vast majority was rainwater. In rare instances where it was not rainwater, Severn Trent launched clean-up operations.
Clearcast said that while the ad was focused on the work Severn Trent were doing for the environment, they nonetheless felt it was necessary to ask them what part they had or had not played in the river sewage pollution incidents that had been reported in the news around the time of the ad. Severn Trent provided them with details of the work they were doing to prevent pollution to the water system, including maintenance of storm overflows. They had been actively working to mitigate sewage dumping in rivers by upgrading the systems they maintained and increasing initiatives to prevent blockages from incorrect disposal of household waste into the sewer system, as well as looking into alternative ways to prevent flooding.
They endorsed Severn Trent’s comments that they had been rated by OFWAT as one of the top performing water companies, and that the use of storm overflows was permitted by the Environment Agency.
They understood that Severn Trent were working within the guidelines set by the Environment Agency with regards to any disposal of waste into the water system and were going beyond their obligation to do so with regards to their own target to improve water health and quality.
The BCAP Code required that the basis of environmental claims must be clear, and that unqualified claims could mislead if they omitted significant information.
The ad stated “This isn’t just any old water. This is Severn Trent water. Our water. That’s why we’re working towards protecting it, nature and our future by planting a bucket load of trees. One point three million in fact. And we’ve planted the town green with 72 tiny forests to keep our grand-kids grand-kids connected with nature. Let’s do right by our environment, our community, our water. Get involved at wonderfulontap.co.uk”.
We considered that the overall impression of the ad was that Severn Trent Water were making, and intended to make, a positive overall environmental contribution as a company. As part of that contribution, they were undertaking an environmentally beneficial activity by planting one point three million trees, which would have positive benefits for nature and the environment. We considered that the voice-over which stated, “Let’s do right by our environment, our community, our water” and the visuals used in the ads, which included various clips of nature imagery, contributed to that impression.
The complainants were concerned because, around the time the ad was broadcast, there had been news reports that water companies had released raw sewage into UK seas and rivers.
All water companies had licences and permits that they were required to comply with to reduce their impact and protect the water environment. The Environment Agency stated that storm overflows were a necessary part of the current sewerage system. They discharged storm sewage (wastewater diluted with rainwater) to rivers or seas during periods of heavy or prolonged rainfall to prevent storm sewage backing up into homes and streets. If they operated within those circumstances and were compliant with their permit, they were not reported and recorded as pollution incidents. Furthermore, water companies were monitored for their compliance with their permits to discharge treated water from sewage treatment works and water treatment works.
We understood that in December 2021, Severn Trent were fined for sewage discharges from a number of their sewage treatment works that occurred during 2018. Their Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA) report from 2021 stated that they performed better than target (green status) for the number of sewerage pollution incidents and for their compliance with their discharge permit, although their performance was below target (amber status) for the number of serious pollution incidents. From 2019 to 2021, which we understood was the most recent year for which data was available, Severn Trent had overall EPA ratings of four stars (out of a possible four), which meant that they were classed as an ‘industry leading company’. Therefore, although there were areas of performance below target, their recent overall environmental performance was good.
Because their overall environmental performance did not contradict the overall impression of the ad, we did not consider that their history of releasing sewage into the environment was material information that needed to be included in the ad to prevent viewers from being misled. We therefore concluded that the ad was unlikely to mislead.
We investigated the ad under BCAP Code rules 3.1, 3.2 (Misleading advertising), 3.9 (Substantiation) and 9.2 (Environmental claims), but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.