In February 2021, Q River published on its website and in an Amazon product listing that its baby wipes were “100% biodegradable”, stating that tests it had undertaken demonstrated that the wipes “break down quickly after they are thrown away; in as little as 15 days; even in landfill conditions”. Q River also claimed that being biodegradable was important to it as it meant that “today’s mess won’t be a problem for tomorrow’s generation”.
The above environmental claims were challenged by Proctor & Gamble UK on the basis that they were misleading, could not be substantiated, and were, therefore, in breach of the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code).
Q River’s response
In its response to the ASA, Q River argued that its wipes were plastic free as they were made from a material derived from wood and, therefore, from 99.5% naturally derived ingredients. It also provided two reports from a testing company it used that assessed the biodegradability of the wipes in both landfill and home composting conditions, to evidence its claims. In relation to the second claim, Q River argued that UK consumers were aware that options made available to them to alleviate the damage caused to the environment would not be perfect. Therefore, they would understand Q River’s biodegradable claim not to be one that alleged to solve all problems for tomorrow’s generation, just that there would be less of a problem as a biodegradable wipe was better for the environment than a similar non-biodegradable, plastic containing wipe.
The ASA’s assessment
In its assessment of the first claim, the ASA considered that consumers would understand it to mean that wipes would completely biodegrade often within 15 days in all conditions in which they might be disposed, including in a landfill. The ASA assessed the methodology used in Q River’s testing in detail and determined that the tests did not replicate conditions consistently found in the wipes at the time of disposal and in a landfill or when home composting. As the tests were, instead, carried out under optimal conditions, they were not appropriate and did not substantiate the claim at hand as consumers would understand it.
In its assessment of the second claim, the ASA considered that consumers would understand this to mean that disposing of the wipes would have no negative impact on the environment and, therefore, considered it as an absolute claim. The ASA also determined that in biodegrading, the organic waste in the wipe would emit methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Therefore, the wipe could actually have a negative impact on the environment and Q River was not able to meet the high level required to substantiate such an absolute claim.
As a result, the ASA concluded that both claims were misleading and, therefore, a breach of the CAP Code.
Why this matters:
The ASA’s assessment of Q River’s biodegradability evidence and the methodology used to substantiate its claims is thorough and detailed. This is to be expected given the increased focus on waste claims and the ASA’s plans to undertake a detailed review of the waste sector this year, specifically stating that it will be looking into claims such as “biodegradable” and with further guidance expected towards the end of this year or 2023. Marketers should, therefore, continue to take particular care with both their waste claims and absolute green claims, making sure to qualify such claims as needed and ensure they hold a very high level of substantiation to back them up.