As the tide of “greenwash” claims rises ever higher in advertising for virtually all products it seems, the International Chamber of Commerce has heaved in with guidance for marketers on how to substantiate environmental claims. “Eco-friendly” Lee Rubin (he wishes) reports.
Who: The International Chamber of Commerce
When: 26 January 2010
Law stated as at: February 2010
The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has recently released guidelines on "green" marketing that includes a checklist and a chart to help international marketers. The ICC's intention is that the new "framework" guide will provide a helpful approach for advertising industry stakeholders to use in developing and analysing "green" claims, whilst consistent with the general principles of advertising practices.
The ICC, as part of its role promoting high standards of business ethics and providing guidance on responsible marketing and advertising communications, issued in 2006 the Consolidated ICC Code of Advertising and Marketing Communication Practice (Code). The Code sets out the general principles governing all marketing communications and includes a separate section on environmental claims at Chapter E of the Code.
To aid in understanding principles and concepts underlying correct environmental claims practices, ICC is supplementing the Code and Chapter E with the Framework for Responsible Environmental Marketing Communications (Framework). The goal of the Framework is to provide additional guidance in response to the growing complexity of environmental or "green" marketing claims, including general claims of "sustainability".
Neither the Code nor the Framework are binding on UK advertisers as such, since a breach will not lead to ICC enforcement action. That said, they are potentially a very helpful source of guidance in an increasingly contentious area.
What are "green" claims?
A "green" claim is any type of claim where an explicit or implicit reference is made to the environment or ecological aspects relating to the production, packaging, distribution, use/consumption or disposal of products. Environmental claims can be made in any medium, including packaging, labelling, package inserts, promotional and point of sale materials, product literature, radio and television, as well as via digital or electronic media such as e-mail, telephone and the internet.
As with all types of advertising, "green" claims in advertising must be evaluated in their entirety to assess how the reasonable consumer will interpret the advertising message. Advertisers must be especially aware of the potential that linking a single, truthful environmental claim (for example, that a package is "recyclable") to a broad claim that the product is "safe" for the environment, "sustainable", or similar, may mislead consumers about the attributes of the product that may not be so favourable.
It is hoped that the Framework will be a valuable reminder to companies of how to truthfully advertise the benefits and impacts of their products or services on the environment.
Code provisions of "green" claims
A general principle of the Code requires that all marketing communication be legal, decent, honest and truthful. Applying this overarching principle to "green" claims means that environmental claims should be based on appropriate scientific information relevant to actual use, operation or disposal of the advertised products, not unsupported assumptions.
Chapter E of the Code is devoted to environmental claims, which are defined as any statement, symbol, or graphic that indicates an environmental aspect of a product, a product component, or its packaging. This section of the Code addresses honest and truthful presentation of environmental claims; use of scientific research; superiority and comparative claims; claims related to a product's lifecycle, components and elements; use of signs and symbols; and claims regarding the handling of waste.
The specific claims covered in Chapter E of the Code are important and reflect the type of claims most common at the time the Code was updated. However, due to the speed at which new claims are entering the marketplace, the ICC hopes that the Framework will remind and guide advertisers in this evolving environment. The Framework guidance is designed to be flexible to allow for the application to a wide range of "green" claims now in existence and those likely to enter the marketplace.
Content of the Framework
Whilst the principles behind the guidance are relatively simple, applying them amid the hype and fury of new claims and terms that are not universally understood, is more complicated. The Framework is an attempt to map that process for companies and provide a standard for self-regulators to evaluate when claims are questioned.
The guidelines include definitions of some of the more common terms used in "green" advertising, such as "recyclable" and "energy efficient". Advertisers are also advised to use particular caution when making claims of "sustainability". This term is not defined in the new Framework, but the ICC does suggest that advertisers making "sustainable" or "sustainably produced" claims make sure that their marketing claims are "carefully couched and appropriately qualified and substantiated."
Included as part of the Framework is a checklist aimed at those developing marketing communications campaigns around environmental claims. For specific guidance, advertisers can use this checklist, which posts questions such as "Do your proposed claims address the effect of the product, component or package on water? On solid waste? On energy usage?"
The guidelines also contain a chart that provides an easy reference to relevant Code provisions, Chapter E principles, and interpretations and comments on specific current issues related to environmental marketing.
Why this matters:
As more consumers consider environmental features important in their purchasing decisions, businesses have a keen interest in communicating the "green" attributes of their products. This renewed interest in "green" marketing is affecting advertisers and marketers, consumers, self-regulatory organisations and governments. But getting the message right is far from easy. The ICC, by releasing the Framework, has shown that it is prepared to address this recent innovation in advertising and help marketers and advertisers avoid the mistakes of vague, non-specific or misleading environmental claims.
"Green" claims must be analysed in line with the general provisions of the Code as well as local legal and regulatory requirements. It is important for all advertising industry stakeholders to remember that all "green" or "sustainability" claims are already covered by the existing Code and the new Framework is intended to provide helpful guidance in developing and analysing these types of claims, consistent with the general principles of the Code and specific guidelines in Chapter E on environmental claims.
The full text of the Framework can be found here.