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Ad agencies and regulators claim era of greenwashing is over

Several major cities face stricter regulatory restrictions on annoying greenwashing tactics. Advertising agencies are being told to reconsider relationships with major polluters, and false claims of being ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘nature positive’ will be thwarted by marketing authorities.

Everyone blags their way through professional life to some extent, right? When it comes to the future prosperity of the planet, however, we need to be sure companies are legitimately taking action.

Wanting to appear ecologically responsible, companies have long played fast and loose with the definition of sustainability, often paying lip service with tenuous, hollow buzz phrases such as ‘environmentally friendly.’

After a barrage of lawsuits in recent years, though, it appears the advertising industry has finally reached its point of reckoning.

Within London and Brussels the era of unspecificity is about to conclude, meaning ambiguous terms like ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘nature positive’ will need to be ratified by regulatory organisations – such as the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK.

‘Misleading environmental claims are under the microscope from advertising regulators, consumer watchdogs, and even governments,’ claims Jonny White, a senior business director at marketing firm AMV BBDO.

According to a scoop from The Guardian, important industry insiders have even told advertising agencies that they must reconsider their relationships with major polluters.

Given the European Parliament voted against carbon offsetting as a valid means to reach net zero last Thursday, the goalposts are fast narrowing while the level of scrutiny is rising.

‘Climate-related claims have been shown to be particularly prone to being unclear and ambiguous, misleading the consumer,’ says Ben Essen, global chief strategy officer at Iris Worldwide.

‘Claims like “climate neutral”, “carbon neutral”, “100% CO2 compensated” and “net zero” are very often based on offsetting. We need to set things straight for consumers and give them full information,’ he said.

Within the UK, the Ad Net Zero program (launched in 2020) continues to strive for a net zero advertising industry by 2030, yet many agencies are opting to develop their own in-house sustainability teams for green campaigns.

‘In many client organisations, there is still a big gap between the marketing and sustainability teams. They have different, often competing objectives, and are accountable in very different ways,’ Essen explained.

The vast majority of the time, failure to reach a sensible compromise between the two facets will lead to a company being tarred with the brush of ‘greenwasher,’ rendering the operation pointless.

As previously mentioned, those currently in cahoots with overt fossil fuel companies are being encouraged to cut ties in various ways.

In the US, for instance, an organisation called Clean Creatives is running a pledge for agencies wanting to swear off pollutant giants for good – more than 500 agencies have signed up.

In a bid for transparency, the same organisation actively names and shames agencies in cahoots with fossil fuel proprietors.

An ‘F List’ is published every year outing hundreds for ‘working on global strategies used to greenwash by corruption, lobbying, and slick communications campaigns.’

As of yet, there is no universal way of dealing with greenwashing companies or marketing agencies, but the general appetite from the West to stop these misleading operations certainly seems to be on the rise.