As well as launching its new 5 year strategy today at its "Greenspeaking with Confidence" webinar, the Advertising Standards Authority also published the results of its research into public understanding of recycling claims. This accompanied an update to the guidance on misleading claims and social responsibility in environment advertising published in June this year to include a section on green disposal claims. The phrase 'green disposal claims' means ones like 'recyclable', 'recycling', 'biodegradable', 'compostable' and 'plastic alternative'.
What did the research unearth?
The main findings from research were:
- People accept that climate change is an important issue facing society.
- People like recycling at home through local authority collection schemes and think they are 'doing their bit' by using these schemes.
- People resent being asked to go further, such as by taking items to specific drop-off points to be recycled.
- People tend to be uncritical in accepting environmental claims.
- Although the terms 'recycling' or 'recycled' are widely understood, there is confusion about the meanings of 'compostable' and 'biodegradable'. People react angrily on learning that 'biodegradable' could be being used when that process would take an indefinite period of time and could result in the release of toxins into the environment. People therefore want more transparency about time scales and specific disposal risks.
- People want greater clarity about which parts of a product are compostable which are not, and where products need to be taken in order to be disposed of responsibly.
What does the new guidance say?
The updated guidance addresses these concerns. While it is not new to say that green disposal claims must be substantiated, the guidance specifies the types of information that should be included to reduce the risk that a green disposal claim is misleading.
Ask yourself these questions when deciding whether it is time to throw you current recycling claim in the (black, not green) bin:
- Are you being clear about which parts of your product are covered by your green disposal claim?
- Have you considered how the average consumer is likely to interpret your green disposal claim, and whether additional information about the disposal process is needed to avoid being misleading?
- Have you explained how long it takes for your product to fully biodegrade or compost, particularly if this likely to be different from the expectations of the average consumer?
- Have you disclosed any relevant information about harmful by-products which are produced during the disposal process? If not, would this be a misleading omission?
You may be able to integrate your communications across your packaging, your advertising and your website to ensure that consumers can access what they need to know.
What happens next?
From January 2024, the ASA will undertake additional monitoring and enforcement (presumably using AI) in relation to matters where it has an "established position" (not a precedent!), such "100% recyclable" claims, like the one below.
And then, in accordance with the established practice of allowing a grace period for advertisers and agencies to become compliant with the new guidance, from 1 April 2024 the ASA will "proactively investigate potentially problematic claims", and especially:
- Green disposal claims that misleadingly omit material information about the effective and responsible disposal of an item at the end of its life.
- Claims that state or imply that a product has multiple green disposal options when that is not the case.
- Unsubstantiated green disposal claims.
What should you do now?
Now is the time to conduct an audit of your claims green disposal claims, i.e., claims that your product can be recycled, or that it is biodegradable or compostable, to ensure that these claims are substantiated, not exaggerated and not misleading by omission. You must be ready with your new claims by 1st April next year.
In 2021 the ASA's Climate Change and the Environment project announced that it would be starting proactive enquiries into sectors and issues identified by the UKs Climate Change Committee as priority areas for carbon reduction and consumer behaviour change. One of the areas identified was issues relating to green disposal of products, such as claims for recyclability, biodegradability or composability.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.