Greenwash clampdown: Carbon claims under scrutiny

Brands and organisations must not provide net zero or carbon neutral claims without sharing their plan for getting there, new advertising guidance rules.

Some brands and organisations are making carbon neutral and net zero claims that are “entirely unqualified” and do not explain how they will be achieved, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has said.

It comes as part of new published guidance on how environmental claims can be used in advertising amid a wider clampdown on greenwash.

Greenwash is the term for when brands or businesses make misleading eco claims about what they are doing for the purpose of appearing ‘green’ and without providing evidence.

‘Carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ have been identified as priority terms of research for where consumers are being misled, with new guidance stating that any claims must be followed with qualifying information about how it has been achieved.

Carbon neutral and net zero were the most commonly encountered claims, in research conducted by the ASA, but there was little consensus as to their meaning.

‘Net zero’ refers to a balance achieved when the amount of greenhouse gases we emit is equalled by the amount we remove. This is typically done by first reducing emissions, and then offsetting the remainder. This can also be referred to as ‘carbon neutral’.

Participants in the research wanted significant reform to simplify the definitions of such terms and for claims to be policed.

People 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.

The issue with carbon offsets has made headlines again recently after a Guardian investigation found that 90 per cent of rainforest carbon credits are “worthless”, sparking scrutiny about the validity of what is a rapidly expanding sector.

People felt that claims in air travel, energy and car advertising were most noticeable, and where the potential role of offsetting, when revealed, could result in greater disappointment. Fashion brands Asos and Boohoo faced action last year for green claims, while drinks brands Alpro, Oatly and Innocent have also faced scrutiny.  

Under new guidance, brands and businesses must now ensure a range of new things, including:

  • Claims based on future goals around net zero or carbon neutrality should only be used if information about how they will be achieved is also provided.
  • Where claims are based on offsetting, marketers should provide information about the offsetting scheme they are using.

Earlier this year, the government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it is looking at how vague or broad eco statements like ‘sustainable’ or ‘better for the environment’ are being used with no evidence in popular household items including food and cleaning.

They are also looking into misleading claims about recycled or natural materials.

“As more people than ever try to do their bit to help protect the environment, we’re concerned many shoppers are being misled and potentially even paying a premium for products that aren’t what they seem, especially at a time when the cost of living continues to rise,” said chief executive of the CMA, Sarah Cardell.

“Our work to date has shown there could be greenwashing going on in this sector, and we’ll be scrutinising companies big and small to see whether their environmental claims stack up. Now is a good time for businesses to review their practices and make sure they’re operating within the law.”

A green flag?

Have you noticed a dubious eco claim in food, or other consumer item? Let us know in the comments, on social media @wickedleeksmag or email


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    1. It is generally considered outside of advertising that 60% of a car’s carbon emissions are in it’s manufacture, regardless of what it is powered by (there being only 1 steel mill in Sweden that is powered by solar/wind harvesting).

      Most EVs are powered by gas/coal/diesel, ie most of any country’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels, with the random selection of good days when solar/wind harvesting (previously known as renewables, which they certainly aren’t – they don’t give birth to new turbines/photovoltaic panels at the end of their 30yr or so life) adds to the mix.
      The intermittency of solar/wind harvesting means currently nations have to rely on FF to level out peaks/troughs in electricity generation, as no nation has been yet able to build necessary energy storage capacity, nor the grid capable of connecting it.

      Note that on a worldwide scale, solar/wind harvesting only accounts for 5% of total energy generation, and they have not displaced any fossil fuel infrastructure, only added to it. In the last decade, total energy use worldwide increased by 65%.
      Half of all anthropogenic carbon emissions since 1750 have been released in the last 30 years. Coincidentally 70% of wildlife disappeared in roughly the same time period.

      For fans of solar/wind harvesting technologies, note that electricity is only 20% of the world’s total energy use, the rest is dirty diesel and its derivatives. Simon Michaux**** has done excellent analysis of the energy and minerals requirements of any variant of a ‘Green New Deal’ – taking the idea of replacing FF infrastructure one-one would require 4.7billion tons of copper to be mined/recycled in a mere 22 years, more than we have mined since 2000BC.

      Dr James Hansen tells us that there is a delay between emissions and heating effects, 10-30 years. In other words, the climate catastrophe we are seeing now is from emissions 10yrs ago, or even 30 years ago. So we ain’t seen nothing yet. And his latest paper just gone to peer review indicates a warming of +10*C by 2070 assuming current carbon emissions stay the same.

      We all know the UK government has committed us to +2% pa increase in CO2 emissions for the rest of the decade. Around the world the FF industry is converting it’s recent windfall profits into FF infrastructure investment projects up to 2045.

      If it involves advertising*; manufacturing; transport by ship/plane/truck; installation by lorry mounted cranes/helicopters; involves cement, tarmac, concrete, steel, exotic metals, then it is all greenwashing.

      Net zero is a marketing scam to keep the FF industry alive a bit longer, and a vanity project to keep the existing level of civilisation going. Which is mathematically impossible. EROEI is already down to 10:1 worldwide, 6:1 in the UK**. What that means is for every 10 units of fuel (whether litres of petrol, sacks of coal) we use 1 to get it out of the ground and convertible to a usable form. In 1999 that ratio was 20:1.

      A wise government would halt all new production of everything (other than hand made) and divert those dwindling resources into repairing & maintaining existing infrastructure as we begin an energy descent, great simplification***, or degrowth, whatever name you want to call it. And start a national horse breeding programme. Not racing horses, but draught horses. At some point in the near future all our resources are going to come from a pack-horse travel radius, ie about 16 miles.

      Anything that attempts to maintain the fiction of a c2005 level of civilisation in a declining energy scenario, is not just greenwashing, its hogwash. {and requires EROEI of 12:1}

      *the internet is expected to use up 25% of the world’s electricity by 2025.

  1. My current annoyance is watching brands turn from HDPE bottles to TetraPac cartons in order to “reduce their plastic packaging”. However, by swapping easily recyclable HDPE for a mixture of layered card, plastic and aluminium, they’re rendering the product only recyclable in 170 plants on the planet. Yes, it’s less plastic but it’s now a mess of materials that need specialist equipment, more energy and more water to actually carry out the recycling process! But well done TetraPac for landing a few big contracts lately; greenwashing winning again!

    1. You could look into smol products. A lot more environmentally friendly and only cardboard boxes 🙂🌱

  2. … and beware branding in the finance sector too e.g. Vanguard’s SustainableLife 60-70% Equity investment fund includes Total Energies SA, itself an active greenwasher. In addition I believe the historically high returns reported are from the pre-rebranded product when they were even less choosey. This is not an isolated case but typical of the rebranding going on in the finance sector. Make sure you check the list of companies that you are investing in and research any you don’t recognise the name of.


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