Ethical Performance
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Shell pulls advert as greenwash gripes rise

September 2008

Shell has withdrawn a newspaper advertisement based around its sustainability credentials after the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) judged it misleading.

The authority’s ruling last month said the advertisement, which appeared in the Financial Times earlier this year, painted a misleading picture, not least by appearing to claim that Shell’s exploitation of oil sands in Canada was sustainable.

The ASA says the number of complaints about environmental claims has risen dramatically, from 117 about 83 ads in 2006, to 561 about 419 items in 2007. It has become so concerned that it held a public seminar on the topic in June and has now issued notes for advertisers based on the seminar discussions. The notes say companies should be particularly careful when using terms such as carbon ‘neutral’, ‘zero’ or ‘negative’, or absolute claims such as ‘100 per cent recycled’ or ‘wholly sustainable’.

Chris Smith, the authority’s chairman, said: ‘We don’t want to discourage companies from making legitimate claims but need to reinforce the fact that they have an obligation not to mislead. Ambiguous or exaggerated claims risk generating scepticism and undermining the genuine initiatives that many businesses, including Shell, are taking to be greener.’ Lord Smith said that although the latest judgement resulted from a referral by WWF, most complaints were from individuals, not pressure groups.

The authority, an independent body responsible for regulating UK advertising, said the advertisement placed by Shell made injudicious use of the word ‘sustainable’, which it noted was an ambiguous term. In particular, the word was used to describe Shell’s exploitation of oil sands, which a recent report from WWF and Co-operative Financial Services claims can create up to eight times the emissions of conventional oil production.

The authority said: ‘Because we had not seen data that showed how Shell was effectively managing carbon emissions from its oil sands projects in order to limit climate change, we concluded that on this point the ad was misleading’.

David Norman, campaigns director at WWF-UK, claimed the judgement sent ‘a strong signal to business and industry that greenwash is unacceptable’.

Shell said the advertisement was intended to highlight its investment in technology to meet the ‘global energy challenge’ responsibly. However, the authority ruled that the advertisement must not appear again, and Shell has said it will not be repeated.

There are already sections on the making of spurious environmental claims in the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice code. But stronger stipulations are likely to be added when the non-broadcast section of the code is revised, starting this autumn. The code was last updated in 2003.

Lord Smith said he supported tighter provisions and added: ‘It won’t stop there. It will have to be continually looked at, because this is a fast-moving area.’

Royal Dutch Shell | UK & NI Ireland | Marketing

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