Consumers feel duped by carbon neutral claims, finds ASA

The Advertising Standards Authority has completed its research into the public’s understanding of the terms carbon neutral and net-zero and found … confusion. The terms were “commonly encountered”, ASA found, but “there was little consensus as to their meaning”. The claims appear to be baffling consumers rather than helping them to make better buying decisions.

The 75 in-depth interviews also covered understanding of terms like zero carbon and climate positive. Carbon offsetting proved to be a particularly problematic area. For example, people felt that carbon neutral claims implied that an absolute reduction in carbon emissions had taken place or would take place. When participants were told this wasn’t the case and there was offsetting involved (to varying degrees) they felt misled.

There was also little awareness of the differences between carbon neutral and net-zero, with most people feeling they were used “interchangeably”. ASA said it was also aware that some organisations are making carbon neutral and net-zero claims which are “entirely unqualified and do not explain the basis on which they are being achieved”. 

Carbon neutral and net-zero claims are increasingly used by organisations to promote how they are seeking to meet climate targets. In their current form they “were regarded as making little or no contribution”, ASA noted in its report, with consumers wanting the claims to be standardised and simplified. This should be overseen and enforced by an official or government body, according to those the ASA quizzed. 


In March, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) provided the government with environmental sustainability advice that includes a recommendation to: “Create statutory definitions of commonly used environmental terms, such as biodegradable, compostable and carbon neutral.” ASA noted in its appendix that there are “no official definitions” for the terms it tested with consumers.

The ASA and CMA have both produced guidance on green claims, including on how carbon neutral and net-zero claims can be made by businesses. In an interview with Footprint earlier this week, Anne Marie Taylor, director (global regulatory, compliance and investigations) at law firm DWF, said the CMA’s green claims code can leave businesses baffled too.

The ASA will be updating its guidance, making it clear that organisations making carbon neutral or net-zero claims “must ensure that they adequately explain the basis on which they are made, even where such advertising is constrained by space or time”. A six-month monitoring period will follow and if that shows the supporting evidence for such claims remains “questionable”, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) could provide guidance on the forms of evidence that are more or less likely to be acceptable to substantiate such claims in advertising.

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