The ASA has recently pronounced on two “zero carbon footprint” or similar claims. The expansive ASA reports testify that the work of adjudicating on the complex issues had far from a neutral impact on stretched ASA resources. Time for carbon claim guidance? Mark Smith plants his footprint.
Who: JC Atkinson
When: 12 November 2008
Law stated as at: 24 November 2008
On 12 November 2008 the ASA upheld a complaint against JC Atkinson & Son Ltd, a manufacturer of coffins, who had placed an advert in a trade journal for funeral directors promoting their products, stating "NO CARBON FOOTPRINT. With the installation of our new biomass generator, the manufacture of our coffins and caskets have a carbon footprint value of zero".
The SAWD Partnership (Ecoffins) disputed whether the biomass generator had genuinely reduced the manufacturer's carbon footprint to zero, as they believed that the production and transportation of biomass fuel, materials such as handles and glue used in the manufacture of the coffins, the factory workers' commute to and from work and the energy required to run the factory itself all contributed to the carbon footprint.
The ASA considered that readers of the advert would understand the claim "… the manufacture of our coffins and caskets have a carbon footprint value of zero" to be restricted to those stages of manufacture within JC Atkinson & Son's direct control. The emissions generated by the production and transportation of biomass fuel, materials used in the manufacture of the coffins and the factory workers' commute were indirect sources of emissions and it was therefore reasonable not to include them in carbon footprint calculations.
Carbon Trust support for claim didn’t help
Ultimately, however, the ASA upheld the complaint. This was despite the fact that JC Atkinson & Son had based their "NO CARBON FOOTPRINT" claim on a report by an energy surveyor commissioned by the Carbon Trust.
Firstly, the ASA thought that the claim "NO CARBON FOOTPRINT" implied that no carbon emissions whatsoever were involved in the manufacture of the coffins and caskets, which was likely to mislead. Whilst the burning of biomass is considered environmentally friendly compared to burning fossil fuels, it still releases CO2.
Secondly, it noted that JC Atkinson & Son imported electricity from the national grid at peaks times and that their tariff, while one of the "greener" ones available, did not supply them with electricity entirely from renewable sources. Some of it was likely to come from natural gas, and the report they referred to did not take this fact into consideration when calculating their carbon footprint. Finally, JC Atkinson & Son's claims were based on projected estimates, but the ASA held that a claim to have a "carbon footprint of zero" should be based on data calculated in use.
Consequently, it was held that JC Atkinson & Son's advertisement breached CAP Code Clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness), 49.1 (Environmental Claims) and 49.2 (Environmental Claims).
Another Carbon Footprint Case
Lexus (GB) Ltd case 8 October 2008
A poster and national press ad for the Lexus RX400h hybrid car prominently displayed the phrase "PUT YOUR CARBON FOOT DOWN". Two complainants objected to the poster on the basis that it was misleading because this text implied that the Lexus RX400h had a low carbon emissions rating, a claim which they disputed.
It was acknowledged by the ASA that the RX400h produced lower CO2 emissions than other cars in its class and that the advert was intended to make a comparison with such cars. However, the ASA considered that, in the context of an advert for a hybrid car, most consumers would understand the play on 'carbon footprint' to suggest that the Lexus RX400h had low CO2 emissions when compared to all cars, and this was not the case. The advert was held to be misleading as the basis of the comparison was not stated. It was found to be in breach of CAP Code clauses 7.1 (Truthfulness), 48.6 (Motoring) and 49.1 (Unqualified Claims) on this basis.
Why this matters:
Environmental claims are becoming an increasingly contentious area for advertisers, with the number of complaints received by the ASA in this area rising markedly in recent years. In 2006 they received 117 complaints about 83 ads making environmental claims, whereas in 2007 they received 561 complaints about 410 ads.
JC Atkinson and Son Ltd is actually a firm with some very impressive environmental credentials, having finished first the Sunday Times' 50 Best Green Companies 2008. The impact that having a "green" reputation can have in attracting today's consumers is demonstrated by comments from Julian Atkinson, the firm's managing director, which appeared in the newspaper earlier this year: "As a result of the award we have definitely received the benefit of new enquiries and sales. It has been the biggest contribution to our growth so far". Whether the adverse publicity caused by the carbon footprint case will damage the firm's reputation remains to be seen. This could certainly be envisaged in the case of a well-known consumer brand found to have made incorrect environmental claims.
With such high stakes, and several recent cases on the subject, isn't it about time, for the sake of consumers, businesses making carbon footprint claims and their competitors, as well as the case handling and financial resources of the ASA itself given the evidently disproportionate time and effort involved in dealing with complaints in this sector, including use of no doubt not inexpensive outside expert advice, that the ASA issued some updated guidance on this complex area?