The number of complaints lodged to the advertising standards watchdog relating to environmental or green claims has more than quadrupled in the past year, according to a report released this week.

The annual report from the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) shows that in 2007 the ASA received 561 complaints about environmental claims in 410 adverts, compared with just 117 complaints about 83 adverts the year before – a more than fourfold increase.

The ASA has already censured several high-profile companies including Suzuki, Shell, Ryanair and Toyota for the practice of “greenwash” – where companies are found to have misled consumers on their environmental practices as a business or of the particular benefits of a product or service.

A complaint against the oil giant Shell was upheld by the advertising watchdog last year over a press advert that showed refinery chimneys emitting flowers.

Environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth was among those who complained about the advert, which ran with the slogan, “Don’t throw anything anyway. There is no away.”

Friends of the Earth said the ad’s central image – of refinery chimneys spewing out flowers – misrepresented the environmental impact of Shell’s activities.

So far this year, a press advert for Suzuki has come under fire for claiming that the Grand Vitara was in the same “CO2 tax band as the Mazda MX5”. This provoked complaints that the statement was misleading on its green credentials because the Mazda MX5 is in tax band F, which is the second highest emitting group, and some models of Grand Vitara are in higher tax band G.

In 2008 there have been 109 complaints to the ASA on 59 separate adverts with environmental claims. This is a slight decrease since 2007, possibly representing a greater awareness in companies and consumers for misleading green advertising, the ASA said.

“While the market for green products was new, it was easier to mislead because the terms were not as well understood,” said the ASA’s communications and policy manager, Lynsay Taffe. “Quite a few organisations have been trying to raise awareness on this issue, as well as ourselves, so hopefully that has encouraged companies to be more careful.”

The ASA’s annual report also revealed that alongside images of violence and weapons, the number of complaints on advertiser’s green claims became one of the two key emerging issues for consumers in 2007. Claims that products and services were carbon “neutral” or “zero” or “negative” were particularly open to challenge, as were statements claiming products to be “100% recycled” or “wholly sustainable”.

The ASA last year commissioned independent research into the public’s understanding of environmental claims in advertising, and found high levels of awareness of environmental messages, but confusion about what certain terms meant. Terms such as “sustainable” and “food miles”, were often misunderstood, the ASA found.

Full Story: