New UK advertising guidance as ASA proposes to actively investigate green disposal claims in 2024
Published on 21st Dec 2023
Research by the ASA gives insight into consumer beliefs about the veracity of claims and understanding of terms used
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has announced the key findings from its consumer research and review into claims relating to the green disposal of products, particularly claims of recyclability, biodegradability and compostability.
In light of this review, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) – the bodies that write the UK advertising codes which are enforced by the ASA – have updated their green claims advertising guidance to include the use of green disposal claims. The new guidance reflects the outcome of the ASA's research, setting out factors that advertisers should take into account to improve the likelihood of their ads complying with the UK advertising codes.
The findings from the research
Consumers 'doing their bit'
The ASA report found that consumers were engaged with green disposal at home and see it as their way of "doing their bit" for the environment.
They were, however, less keen on any additional requirements that meant they had to go outside the home to suitably dispose of products. They felt the onus should be on businesses to make items "seamlessly disposable".
There was an "uncritical acceptance" of environmental claims in advertising across the research sample. Participants believed advertising was highly monitored and regulated in the UK so assumed brands were unable to make environmental claims without substantiation.
They particularly assumed this where ads included statistics, facts or more technical terms.
Varying degrees of understanding green disposal definitions
The degree to which consumers understood the terms "recycled", "recyclable", "biodegradable" and "compostable" varied, with most being familiar with the terms recycled and recyclable.
There was less understanding of biodegradable and compostable which were often confused as one in the same.
Disbelief and frustration
There was a general lack of awareness that specialised conditions and processes were needed in relation to composting, while the unlimited time frame on biodegradable claims and potential creation of toxins caused disbelief and frustration.
Stronger rules required
As a result, most participants felt that there should be stronger rules around the use of green disposal claims in advertising, particularly in relation to product composition, disposal location, the length of time a product takes to break down and the outcome of disposal process, including creation of by-products.
Make clear to which part the claim refers
Green disposal claims such as recycled or recyclable are more likely to comply if they are clearly qualified by making clear the parts of a product or packing to which the claim refers. This qualification should counter any overall impression that the product is entirely recyclable.
Meanwhile, absolute claims of 100% recycled should not be used at all unless all components are recycled.
Disposal processes are material information
If the disposal process referred to in an ad is likely to be different from the average consumer's, it may be considered material information, and the claim is likely to need qualification. For example, making clear as to how and where the product should be disposed.
Unqualified "recyclable" claims may be understood to mean that the product is easily recyclable and that the recycling process is widely available in the UK. Where this is not the case, it is likely that this will need to be made clear.
Where products need to be recycled using a specific scheme or method that goes beyond usual consumer disposal (that is, disposal at home), information relating to the special disposal method is likely to be material to consumers' understanding and should be made clear in the ad.
Where compostable products are only suitable for industrial composting, this information may be considered material to a consumer's transactional decision. Claims which do not clearly and prominently include this information (for example, by just stating that the product is "compostable") are less likely to be compliant.
Where multiple claims are used because, for example, they apply to different parts of the product and/or packaging, the ad must make clear to which part each claim relates. Qualifying information about what this means for the product's disposal should be included prominently (not, for example, at the bottom of a webpage or otherwise obscured).
Timescales for biodegradation and composting
The longer the time takes for biodegradation or composting processes to complete, the more likely it is to be material information to consumers.
Claims are more likely to comply if they are clearly qualified with information about time scales for full biodegradation or composting (such as compostable within X time period).
Harmful by-products caused by disposal
It was clear from the research that consumers were surprised that disposal could result in harmful by-products, such as toxins. As such, ads should make this clear.
Ads must not claim that the disposal process of a product, such as "biodegradable" does not have any negative impact on the environment where this is not the case.
Product lifecycle includes disposal
Unqualified claims that a product produces less waste than alternatives may be considered misleading if the claim is based on only part of the product's lifecycle. For example, an unqualified plastic reduction claim such as "with 70% less plastic" is likely to mislead if the claim relates only to a reduction in the amount of plastic used to produce the packaging and does not also factor in disposal.
Substantiation of disposal methods
Objective claims should be supported by sufficient evidence which relates to the likely condition of use for that particular product. Claims of "widely recycled" are more likely to mislead if not supported by evidence to show that, for example, it is recycled by the majority of local authorities in the UK.
Similarly, biodegradable products should only be referred to as compostable if both claims can be substantiated.
What does this mean for businesses?
The ASA has said that from 1 April 2024, it will start proactively investigating potentially problematic claims in relation to green disposal, with a particular focus given to:
- Claims that omit end of use green disposal information where such information is material to the effective and responsible disposal of the item.
- Claims that suggest a product has multiple green disposal options where that is misleading.
- Claims where substantiation to back up green disposal claims is not present.
Green disposal claims are high on the agenda at the ASA, as part of its aims in relation to greenwashing generally. Those making green claims should review them in light of the latest guidance, which now extends to green disposal, to ensure compliance with UK advertising codes as this aspect comes under increased scrutiny.
Is the ASA guidance in line with recent developments in the EU?
Currently, green disposal claims are mostly regulated through the prohibition of misleading and unfair practices.
However, some Member States, such as France, have adopted some rules restricting or regulating their use. In France, claims encouraging the disposal of products must, for example, contain some information encouraging reuse or recycling of said products, and claims promoting degradation of products in normal working conditions are prohibited. For reasons similar to the ASA findings, the claim “biodegradable” is prohibited on products and packaging, and the claim “compostable” must not be used for products and packaging that can only be composted in an industrial unit. Finally, the claim “recycled” can only be used as long as the actual percentage of recycled material incorporated in the product is disclosed.
The EU is also working on providing a harmonised regime on green claims, including green disposal claims. In March 2022, the EU Commission submitted a proposal for a directive on empowering consumers for the green transition, and an agreement was reached by the Parliament and Council in September 2023. This proposal sets out a number of specific requirements on environmental claims. For example, it prohibits generic claims (such as the claim that a product or a packaging is “biodegradable”) which are not based on recognised excellent environmental performance or scientific evidence, or whenever the specification of the claim is not provided in clear and prominent terms on the same medium (such as on the same packaging).
In March 2023, the EU Commission also submitted a proposal for a directive on substantiation and communication of explicit environmental claims (the Green Claims Directive). The proposed directive requires traders to substantiate the voluntary green claims they make with a number of requirements regarding their assessment (for instance, taking a lifecycle perspective). It also sets requirements on how to communicate these claims and requires disclosure of some substantiation elements in a physical or digital form (such as a weblink or QR code). Compliance with these requirements would have to be verified and certified by a third party. The proposed directive also introduces rules on environmental labelling schemes.