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Environmental claims should be based on an analysis of the full lifecycle of a product, including production, transportation and retail

Advertisers making environmental claims are starting to feel the regulatory heat. September brought what looked like a two-pronged approach to the issue of misleading green claims, with the ASA announcing the launch of a series of inquiries into environmental claims in adverts, and the CMA launching its Green Claims Code.

Leading manufacturer of plant-based food substitutes, Alpro, found itself something of a test case following the announcements.

The ASA launched an investigation after concerns were raised around whether Alpro’s core environmental claim ‘good for the planet’ was misleading.

Alpro argued that consumers understand transitioning to a plant-based diet can reduce their carbon footprint, and referred to various studies for substantiation. The brand also provided a lifecycle analysis for the advertised products. Alpro claimed the environmental impact of these products was significantly lower than that of dairy milk, despite being challenged over the water-intensive processes involved in almond production.

Rule 11.1 of the CAP Code states that the basis of environmental claims must be clear. Unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information.

The ASA concluded that Alpro breached rule 11.1 as its core claim was neither contextualised nor qualified. It was also unclear whether the claims ‘Your recipe to a healthier planet’ and ‘Deliciously plant based’ were intended as separate claims or as qualifiers for the core claim, which the ASA felt led to ambiguity.

It is instructive to compare this decision with one from 2019, concerning ads for Plenish almond milk. In that example, the brand tagline said ‘If you want to change the world, change your milk’.

As with Alpro, the complainants raised concerns about the impact of almond production on water levels and challenged whether the ads misleadingly exaggerated the environmental benefits of the product.

Plenish however had used a team of academics, previously involved in a study on the environmental impact of food products across their full lifecycle, to design and analyse the supply chain of their almond drink. Crucially, Plenish submitted a full lifecycle analysis, from the farm through transportation and retail, together with comparative data for cows milk production.

The ASA decided not to uphold the complaint against Plenish, which they said had substantiated both the claim that their almond drink had a lower impact on the environment than cows milk based on the full lifecycle of the product, and that consumers would understand this to be the case.

So, what conclusions can be drawn?

First, vague and general claims should be avoided, as they breach not only the CAP Code but recent CMA guidance stating that environmental claims must be clear and unambiguous.

Second, environmental claims should be based on an analysis of the full lifecycle of a product, including production, transportation and retail. This is addressed in the CMA Green Claims Code but was already well-established by rule 11.4 of the CAP, which requires that “claims that are based on only part of the advertised product’s lifecycle do not mislead consumers about the product’s total environmental impact”.

Given that these decisions relate to similar products, it is reassuring to conclude the ASA reached sound, consistent judgements in both. However, companies must be cognisant of the additional emphasis now being placed by regulators on strict adherence to both new and existing guidelines. Those brands that previously felt comfortable making only partially defensible environmental claims will need to reassess their campaigns.