Consumers broadly treat green claims in ads uncritically, which risks them having an “oversimplified understanding” of the terms and how waste is disposed of, a new Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) report has found.
The ASA’s report focuses on green disposal claims in ads, specifically “recycled”, “recyclable”, “biodegradable”, and “compostable”. The research aimed to find out what consumers understand from these claims within the context of specific ads.
Its key findings included that participants were engaged with green disposal at home, usually in the form of regular recycling collections, and pride in their efforts, viewing waste management as a way of “doing their bit” for the environment.
However, while participants were most focused on how they dispose of waste at home, the research found consumers feel it’s unfair to ask them to do more outside their household, such as taking recycling to specific drop-off points.
The research highlighted that participants broadly treated green claims in ads uncritically, which the ASA says risks consumers having an “oversimplified understanding” of the terms and how waste is disposed of.
When looking at spontaneous understanding of the terms tested, “recyclable” and “recycled” were the easiest for consumers to describe. However, the report says participants showed “little interest or understanding” in the complexities or stages of the recycling process.
The terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” were less well understood and often confused with one another. The ASA says participants “expressed anger and frustration” when they were told the term “biodegradable” could refer to an unlimited timescale and that some products can release toxins upon degrading.
After learning the definitions of the terms explored, the report says most participants “felt strongly” that there should be stronger rules around their use in advertising. The ASA says there were widespread calls for stronger transparency about the length of time a product that’s described as “biodegradable” takes to degrade, as well as specific disposal risks.
Participant motivation was reliant on the belief that their actions made a difference and were vital to combating climate change, the research found.
New green disposal claim guidance
The ASA’s findings accompany updated guidance from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) on the use of green disposal claims.
The guidance is for advertisers making green disposal claims and sets out factors advertisers should take into account to ensure they don’t mislead and improve the likelihood of their ads complying with the Advertising Codes.
It says green disposal claims must be substantiated and provides guidance on the types of information which would mean that these claims are less likely to mislead. The guidance recommends advertisers clarify which parts of a product the claim relates to.
It also says advertisers should include information about the product’s disposal process and how long it takes for a product to fully biodegrade or compost, if that is likely to differ from the average consumer’s expectations”, and information on harmful by-products which are produced during the disposal process.
The ASA’s announcement states that, from January 2024, it will begin additional monitoring and carry out enforcement work to tackle ads in breach of established positions already set down in rulings, such as “100% recyclable” claims.
After a period of grace, from 1 April 2024, the ASA says it will proactively investigate potentially problematic claims with a particular focus being given to claims:
- That omit end-of-use green disposal information where it is material to the effective and responsible disposal of the item.
- That mislead the consumer into believing a product has multiple green disposal options.
- That don’t substantiate green disposal claims.