Seeing The Wood For The Trees – Will Environmental Claims Trip Advertisers Up?

Climate change protestors hold their placards high.

Adverts, by and large, reflect the society they’re marketing to. Adverts that would have broadly been deemed acceptable one day can appear inconceivable just a few years later.

Updated: 28/2 with clarification on the ACCC’s role. 

Around 1948, Philips Lamps was boasting that its halogen lightbulbs were “Easy on the eyes…” with a young woman wearing a swimsuit superimposed over the top of the pictured lightbulb.

Between 1977 and 1980, Winfield cigarettes was running its brand platform — though it wouldn’t have been called that at the time — with the slogan “Anyway, have a Winfield.” But just a few years later in 1981, BUGA-UP produced a spoof advert showing a man in a wheelchair smoking through a hole in his throat after a tracheotomy as a candidate for a Marlboro Man contest.

As a more current example, Australia has no specific rules on advertising junk food to children. In the UK, meanwhile, a proposed ban on fast food TV advertising until after 9 pm has been pushed back until 2025.

But, when it comes to environmental claims, the EU has begun to push forward with anti-greenwashing rules. At present, it is the only national or international body looking at the topic.

In Australia, there are efforts to hold advertisers accountable for their eco-friendly claims. The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), for example, has brought forward the review of its Environmental Claims Code. However, no companies will get taken to court for breaking the code, instead, ads will get pulled and brands told to try again.

ASIC and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) have issued fines and infringement notices to a group of companies. The ACCC also has investigations underway into packaging, consumer goods, food manufacturing, and medical device sectors for alleged misleading environmental claims. It is also proactively reviewing claims in ads from clothing, white goods, energy, car, packaging, and household cleaning brands.

“Greenwashing erodes the simple principle that sits behind the relationship between a brand and people – trust,” said James Walker-Smith, general manager of Leo Burnett.

“At a time when consumers are increasingly looking to use their purchasing power to better reflect their own values, misleading claims around sustainability are particularly pernicious.”

Changes to advertising rules to try and eliminate unsubstantiated or misleading environmental claims, while important and necessary, could change the face of advertising rules.

Read part one of the series: It’s Not Easy Being Green – Does Advertising Have a Problem With The Environment?

Levelling the playing field

“My assumption would be that [greenwashing] rules would be more applicable to a company, not just a brand itself,” said Michael Titshall, senior vice president of creative agency R/GA.

“It’s hard to detach [a brand from a parent company] and therefore smaller brands operate more in a targeted way. I wouldn’t assume that it would be easier for big brands because of the increased complexity on their side. But, I understand that they have got more resources at their disposal.”

Greenwashing rules and heightened scrutiny on sustainability claims are unlikely to affect small and large brands the same.

“The companies that have B Corp certification and the like are not always big companies, they’re often smaller. They’ve gone through a pretty rigorous process to get there,” added Tishall.

Josh Faulks, AANA’s CEO, however, thinks that a larger share of the burden falls on bigger companies.

“Big advertisers should be doing this already and looking at the EU and other parts of the world to see what they’re doing. Often, those things reverberate around the world and then have an effect on Australia months or years later.

However, while Faulks believes that it would be helpful for brands, advertisers, and holding companies to look at what is happening in Europe and beyond, there is no obligation for any of these companies to take up the best practice from abroad — even if it would help put their environmental houses in order.

“Every company operating in Australia has to comply with Australian laws and that applies to all companies advertising in Australia — if they’re here, they have to comply with the self-regulation system.

“I like the idea that they would comply with the most strict [rules] and the analogy here with privacy is really interesting, but the best answer is that you just need to comply with local laws. If you want to go further, go for it.”

Of course, doing one thing in one country and saying another thing in a different location could be a recipe for a disaster for global companies.

“I don’t think brands can get away with cutting corners, saying that they’re doing good in one way and not in others,” said June Cheung, head of JAPAC decarbonisation company Scope3.

“Climate change is a huge and passionate topic for many people — and they’ll get caught out. There are organisations that are purpose-driven, they’re not working for money, that can call brands out who say they are doing really good in the EU but they’re polluting or using slave labour in developing countries. If you’re a global brand committed to net zero, you have it’s not just about the climate — it’s also about diversity, inclusion, and equity.”

But that’s not to say that doing nothing is better than trying to do something — whether your brand or company is global or local.

“We’re all learning how we can live in a society that is carbon neutral or we can work in a state that is carbon negative.

“As an opportunity, it might feel small or it might feel insignificant if it’s just one campaign that you’re putting into green media. But, if every single planner does that, it has a huge impact and that’s how to shift your mindset.

Advertising to eco-conscious consumers

While media planners might feel as though their efforts might be insignificant, consumers are becoming increasingly aware that their dollars can affect change — even at a small level. Reaching these consumers and getting them to believe that your brand is doing the right thing is becoming essential for advertisers in Australia, as well as around the world.

“What strikes me is that when dealing with world-class communicators and advertisers, they have the capacity to present complex issues in ways that don’t oversimplify but certainly give the sense that there are complexities and challenges,” said Patrick Gibbons partner at Rethink Everything, a climate change-focused offshoot of corporate advisory firm Orizontas.

“Now, not everyone is up to it and that’s the difference between really good operators and those who don’t have the same degree of skill.”

That challenge does not present a roadblock. Instead, it presents a new opportunity for brands and advertisers — whether in-house or agency-side — to lead the charge and potentially steal a march on their competition.

“Laws around greenwashing would certainly represent a challenge for those creating work that is based on false claims,” added Walker-Smith.

“But for those brands that are genuinely making change, those that are making progress and addressing necessary systemic change for their product or service, this could help unleash new and more powerful creativity based on more honest transparency. We also need to engage consumers in the hard work of this change, rather than confusing them with promises that it’s already here.

“Ultimately, it’s a moment that calls for more creativity. Creativity not just in communication, but to help solve these fundamental challenges around product design, supply chain and circularity amongst many others.”

Car adverts are littered with disclaimers and asterisks pointing to research and testing of environmental claims. Sports betting adverts are hit with mandated slogans around the risks of betting. However, rather than making consumers distrust adverts, Walker-Smith believes that if similar efforts are made, consumers would not only welcome them but would also trust brands more.

“The greater risk is that without heightened scrutiny of the quality and authenticity of environmental claims made, consumers will become jaded and less trust-worthy of all brands, with trust already in freefall. Bringing in more clear, robust and visible rules around greenwashing would be a first step in regaining trust and help to level the playing field for those that do have robust and well-evidenced claims,” he continued.

Broader and higher-level scrutiny of environmental claims would also bring significant benefits for consumers and advertisers, according to Titshall.

“Currently, marketing focuses on one part, like packaging or an ingredient because it’s easy for consumers to comprehend. But it doesn’t take into consideration the whole company’s impact.

“It’s really going to change the way that brands communicate their credentials. If there is a formal certification process, it’ll allow those who have actually done the appropriate work to have an impact because it would leave the market far less cluttered.”

We ask Titshall if Coles or Woolworths could demonstrate better environmental chops, would they receive a bump in sales.

“That’s a really good example, Woolies and Coles, because they’re quite interchangeable. There’s not a big differentiator between them from a product or a price perspective. For a category like that, it could have a really big impact because you’re not having to compromise anywhere else to feel like you’re also doing good for the environment by going there.

“But, if there are other things that they need to compromise on, say if it’s 30 per cent more expensive, then it’s not always feasible for people.”

And perhaps that’s the crux of the issue. While consumers, companies, and governments are looking at brands and their environmental claims, with the cost of living rising, price might always trump planet.

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