Who: The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Tesco plc (Tesco) and J Sainsbury plc (Sainsbury’s)
Where: United Kingdom
When: 8 June 2022
Law stated as at: 13 July 2022
The ASA has published two rulings relating to adverts of Tesco and Sainsbury’s that promoted the environmental benefits of plant-based diets and products. While the Tesco adverts were found to have breached both The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) and The UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) rules, Sainsbury’s was found not to be in breach.
The Tesco adverts promoted its Plant Chef range, stating, amongst other claims, that “a little swap can make a difference to the planet”. The adverts received complaints arguing that such claims were misleading and could not be substantiated. In response, Tesco stated that the claims were not intended to be “absolute environmental claims”; instead, they were drawing a comparison between the different impacts of plant and meat-based products, highlighting that swapping to plant-based products was better for the planet.
In its assessment, the ASA noted the scientific consensus that plant-based diets had less of an environmental impact than those that included meat. However, it stressed that plant-based products, particularly processed products, may still contain ingredients or be transported in a manner that leaves behind a high-carbon footprint and are not guaranteed to have a lesser impact on the environment than meat products. As Tesco did not hold evidence that related to the full lifecycle of the products in its Plant Chef range or its plant-based burger to substantiate its claims, the ASA was unable to assess the product’s total environmental impact over its life cycle compared to that of its meat equivalent. Tesco could not demonstrate that its plant-based range had a positive environmental difference to the planet when compared to its meat equivalent products, and it was concluded that the claims regarding the products’ positive environmental effects were likely to mislead.
The Sainsbury’s adverts promoted cooking with more vegetables and less meat to benefit the environment, encouraging consumers to use “half lentils” and “half mince”, or “half chickpeas” and “half chicken” to “help our health and planet”. Complainants challenged whether the claims could be substantiated as they believed the chickpeas, lentils and beans featured in the adverts were grown and imported from abroad, so would have a greater carbon footprint than domestically produced meat.
The ASA ruled that the Sainsbury’s adverts were not misleading, as they made general statements based on the overall accepted premise that a plant-based diet is generally more environmentally friendly than a meat-based one. The adverts promoted a “change in diet” from meat-based to more plants, as opposed to comparing domestic and imported produce. Crucially, the ads did not promote a particular product range, instead featuring ingredients that could be purchased from a variety of retailers, and did not make any comparisons.
Why this matters:
These rulings demonstrate that, while adverts promoting the benefits of switching to a plant-based diet, in general terms, are likely to be acceptable, objective environmental claims relating to specific products must be accompanied with robust evidence showing that the products have a positive environmental impact based on their full lifecycle. As sustainability continues to increase in importance for companies and consumers, retailers looking to promote the environmental benefits of their plant-based products must do so cautiously and be armed with significant evidence to substantiate their claims.