Tesco bitten by burger greenwash

Detailed data is required to make ‘green’ claims but are harsher penalties needed when brands fall foul of the rules, asks David Burrows?

Tesco is the latest food company to be chastised by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for greenwashing. The adverts, which appeared in November, promoted the supermarket’s plant-based range. “We’ve lowered the price of dozens of our Plant Chef products because a little swap can make a difference to the planet,” ran the ads across TV, radio, newspapers and social media.

Now, switching meat for plants is generally going to lower the environmental impact of a shopping basket or meal out – and there is plenty of scientific evidence to back that up. But while Tesco seemed aware of this – and consulted a UK university and NGO on the matter – it could produce nothing that specifically showed its plant options had a lighter environmental footprint than the meat counterparts.

“Because we considered the ads implied that switching to products in the Plant Chef range would positively affect the environment, we expected to see evidence that that was the case based on the full life cycle of the Plant Chef burger in comparison with a meat burger,” the ASA noted in its ruling. “However, we understood that Tesco did not hold any evidence in relation to the full lifecycle of any of the products in the Plant Chef range, or of the burger featured in the ads. We were therefore unable to assess the product’s total environment impact over its life cycle compared with that of a meat burger.”

Every little helps, as the retailer’s strapline goes, but in order to make green claims companies now need a lot of data to back them up. Just ask Oatly, which was reprimanded recently too, despite providing a decent amount of data. Just because a product is probably better for the environment does not mean companies can shirk being accurate and being precise, ASA director of complaints and investigations Miles Lockwood told me recently.

Defending its position, Tesco said the claims were not, nor were they meant to be, absolute environmental claims, as they did not claim that the products were wholly sustainable or good for the planet. 

Virtuous or vague?

Consider the green claims code, a new guidance prepared and policed by the Competition and Markets Authority, and Tesco’s ads appear to fall foul of five of the six principles – they were ambiguous, omitted important information, didn’t consider full LCAs, were unsubstantiated and didn’t provide a fair and meaningful comparison. 

Whether they were also inaccurate depends on what those missing LCAs show. Tesco said its ads did not make any comparisons with any particular country or farming method (again, too vague). It would be interesting to see how the products compare with local, grass-reared beef, for example, or moreso the meat-free crispy nuggets versus chicken ones where it could be a very close run thing when comparing greenhouse gas emissions. 

If it had done the LCA legwork, which is becoming increasingly cheap and easy, Tesco might also have identified how to reduce the footprint of both its plant and meat products. The supermarket will also need to be careful with its current ‘better basket’ campaign, which is again promoting its plant-based products.

Tesco said the most important element of the claims in the Plant Chef adverts was the emphasis on the “swap” or “swapping”, which meant that an equivalent meat-based product was being taken from the shopping basket and replaced by a Plant Chef product. It said the average consumer was being asked to make a change by way of a substitution.

But the evidence of such promotional activity thus far suggests that people buy more plant-based products but keep on purchasing meat too. Research by the University of Surrey showed this to be the case, and so too did the ‘Lundi c’est veggie’ campaign in France involving Carrefour and Metro, the wholesaler, together with a bunch of food brands. 

That food companies are trying to push plants is no bad thing. But the push needs to be hard and fair. In taking a broad-brush approach – that plants are de facto ‘better’ than meat – Tesco greenwashed. 

Arguably it got away with it too – the ads can’t appear again but it has already reaped the rewards. Perhaps a more fitting penalty would be for Tesco to spend the same budget used on the original campaign but this time on adverts acknowledging that the claims were misleading? That would certainly act as a deterrent but would it deter brands from promoting plants, or indeed sustainable products, at all? I’d be interested in readers’ thoughts.

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