The UK's advertising watchdog decided this summer that oil company Shell misled the British public in a recent advertisement highlighting its environmental credentials, in a ruling that could draw a line in the sand regarding the acceptability of green marketing campaigns.
Environmental group WWF complained to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over an advertisement for Shell in the Financial Times newspaper earlier this year, questioning the energy giant's assertion that an oil sands project in Canada was 'sustainable'.
"The challenge of the 21st century is to meet the growing need for energy in ways that are not only profitable but sustainable," read the advertisement. ASA upheld WWF's assertion that use of word 'sustainable' was "misleading" because the advert "was defined primarily in environmental terms".
Shell argued that it also used 'sustainable' to refer to the social and economic impact of the projects. Accepting ASA's decision, Shell spokeswoman Sarah Smallhorn said "it was never our intention to be misleading in our advertisement". But she did not say whether similar claims would be toned down in future adverts.
As the influence of climate change on consumer choices grows, businesses are sensing an opportunity to attract customers by stressing their green credentials. But ASA's chairman, Lord Chris Smith, warns that industry should take note of "the rise in consumer awareness of environmental and ethical issues alongside confusion and scepticism".
The ruling implies that companies would be advised to choose their words carefully when planning future adverts. "The ASA does not want to discourage companies from communicating their initiatives but to help them to do so in a credible and responsible way," Lord Smith said at a recent seminar on the issue.
Consumers, meanwhile, are becoming more sceptical of the business world's tendency to base advertising campaigns on environmental credentials as their own awareness of climate change issues improves.
"Sustainability-related cases are on the rise in the EU," Richard Knubben of the European Advertising Standards Alliance told EurActiv, singling out France and Belgium in particular. Indeed, despite stressing the independence of ASA in the Shell case, France's advertising standards body ARPP nevertheless said the ruling "once again highlights the importance of providing specific information, including figures if possible, to support environmental claims".
"We hope that companies will look at [the ASA ruling] and realise they are not going to get away with green spin," WWF Campaign Director David Norman told the FT. Stressing the significance of the Shell case, he said the decision "sends a strong signal to business and industry that green-wash is unacceptable". WWF later responded by launching a counter-campaign, hailing the success of their actions.