How are food and drinks brands greenwashing?

New research from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has found that consumers regularly overestimate how sustainable food and drink products are based on subtle messaging from brands, such as green colour schemes.

How are food and drinks brands greenwashing?

ASA: "Businesses often employ broad claims like 'good for the planet', which consumers typically accept at face value."

As part of its ‘climate change and environment’ project, the ASA conducted focused research, analysing public comprehension of green assertions in food and beverage advertisements.

The research found that most individuals accept general green assertions without scrutiny, assuming that the advertising adheres to regulations.

Only a minority, comprising environmentally conscious individuals, business sceptics and vegans/vegetarians, question such claims.

As such, most viewers can be duped by vague terms like ‘natural’ or subtle messaging like images of nature or green colour schemes.

ASA’s compliance executive Nicky Baker said: “This research provides us with a greater insight of how the British public understands green claims in ads for food and drink, as well as how they’re making purchasing decisions.

“We’re committed to tackling problem ads that make misleading or inaccurate green claims.”

The ASA found that marketing messages usually focus on taste, nutrition and price, aligning with consumer research outcomes.

However, the report highlights evidence of ‘sustainable’ claims being utilised in various ways within the food production context, occasionally lacking qualification, which could be misleading.

Categories of environmental claims in the industry

In some instances, advertisers breached existing ASA precedents and guidance, particularly concerning comparative environmental impact claims lacking suitable qualification.

As per the findings, businesses often employ broad claims like ‘good for the planet’, which consumers typically accept at face value. However, consumers expressed concerns about the lack of verifiability in such claims, fearing they could serve as a way for brands to imply significant benefits without providing evidence, potentially affecting consumer trust.

Additionally, the ASA found that the use of specific terminology or visual cues in advertising can lead to a chain association in consumers’ minds, suggesting attributes that weren’t explicitly stated.

For example, the use of ‘natural’ might lead consumers to assume additional qualities like organic certification, influencing their purchasing decisions.

Moreover, the ASA found that the use of visual elements, such as fresh-looking produce or the colour green, in advertisements by brands often evokes perceptions of environmental, animal welfare and health benefits, without explicit claims.

Looking ahead, the ASA will collaborate with industry and other stakeholders to delve deeper into key issues, such as regenerative farming, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in advertisements.

While this review of advertising claims has generally shown satisfactory compliance with ASA’s regulations, the organisation will take additional steps starting from July 2024 to address any identified issues through proactive monitoring and response to complaints.

Related op-ed: How should businesses prepare for the EU’s Green Claims Directive?

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