Sara Nelson
Sep 24, 2021

UK ad watchdog to scrutinise sustainability claims

The watchdog says new guidance is needed to help businesses get their advertising right amid increased focus on preventing climate change.

Greenwash activists (Getty Images / SOPA Images / Contributor)
Greenwash activists (Getty Images / SOPA Images / Contributor)

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) Thursday confirmed it will shine a brighter regulatory spotlight on environmental matters in the wake of updated government climate targets.

The ASA announcement comes in the same week that the UK's competition watchdog, the CMA, published a Green Claims Code and warned that it is launching a sweeping review of misleading green claims, otherwise known as "greenwash".

Meanwhile, the advertising watchdog has completed the first stage of a review of its regulation of environmental claims and issues in advertising in a bid to ensure compliance in the context of a society increasingly concerned about the impact of human behaviour on climate change. 

Later this year, ASA sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice, will issue advertising guidance to the industry setting out key principles advertisers need to follow to ensure their ads don’t mislead about the environment and are socially responsible when considering environmental issues.

Tightened regulation comes amid the UK Climate Change Committee’s priorities around the need for consumer behaviour change and the UK and devolved governments' new and ambitious climate targets. 

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.

A statement from the ASA acknowledged: “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.” 

The review was also inspired by the following conclusions drawn from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report in August, which concluded that human activity is unequivocally responsible for the intensifying pace of climate change, and stressed the vital importance of reaching net zero emissions.

The second part of the project will see inquiries into specific issues, starting with the Climate Change Committee’s identified priority areas requiring carbon reduction. This includes aviation, cars, waste, animal-based foods and heating.

The third will see the ASA commission research in the 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.

The ASA added: “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… new guidance to help businesses get their advertising right is called for at this time.”

Campaign UK

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