Assessment of green claims in marketing

Start date:
March 2009
October 2009

This project, undertaken by Brook Lyndhurst, Icaro Consulting and AAI+Friends on behalf of Defra, explored 'green' claims in advertising from two different perspectives: first, from the perspective of statistical data to explore headline trends over time; second, from the perspective of the advertising and marketing community.

The purpose of the research was to support the development of the Green Claims Code (GCC), by providing a robust evidence base to help inform Defra’s revisions to the Code and practical guidance.

This project had 3 main objectives:
1. To get an overall picture of the extent of green claims found in advertisements;

2. To identify in which sectors, services and products such claims mostly appear, and to understand the context of the identified claims; and

3. To engage with advertisers and their agencies in order to gather their views on green claims; what claims and terminology they use and why, what evidence they use to make those claims and to raise awareness of the Green Claims Code.

The research involved a multi-methodological approach, combining statistical interrogation of datasets alongside stakeholder engagement workshops.

The statistical analysis involved a search of Xtreme Information’s library of adverts to identify recorded green claims over the period Jan 2006 – March 2009. Using a list of 40+ environmental search terms, they identified a total of 4,083 adverts carrying green claims (from a total of 598,134 adverts held by Xtreme from this period). Of these, a random sample of 1,000 was purchased and subjected to more detailed analysis, including analysis of imagery, terminology and third party endorsements.

The stakeholder workshops comprised five sessions, four in London and one in Manchester, and divided according to industry sector (e.g. transport/automotive, energy & utilities, etc). The target audience for these workshops were mainly client companies and brand communication agencies of all types from advertising to pack designers. A total of 143 delegates attended, and guest speakers included representative from Proctor & Gamble, British Gas, British Telecom, The Co-operative Bank and Shell.

Key Findings from statistical analysis
Green claims comprised 0.68% of all ads in the period, with notable and rapid growth in claims between 2006 and 2007/8. Subsequent falling back coincided with the worsening economic climate.

Three especially prominent 'claimants' were the public sector, energy and automotive. A wide range of other organisations and/or sectors had made green claims, even if few in number. Almost two thirds of green claims related to the promotion of a specific product or service. Close to one in five related to the broader brand and its corporate social responsibility, while a similar proportion conveyed public information, e.g. on recycling.

Just over a third of green claims traded on an environmental message alone, with others combining a green message with an additional feature – most commonly cost or performance.

A variety of green imagery was used, yet only a relatively low proportion of adverts identified a third party organisation supporting the claim being made. Small print was fairly common, however only 17% of ads had 'green' small print which related to the claim being made. The type and rigor of substantiation varied greatly between claims.

Key Findings from industry consultation
This is an important issue for the marketing community, and there was a high degree of agreement that green marketing should not be allowed to become devalued by 'greenwash'.

Green claims in advertising to date were felt to represent the equivalent of a 'toe in the water'. Confusion around green claims, both within the industry and among consumers, remains a barrier, particularly in relation to green terminology. Delegates felt that the industry is also cautious about making green claims - which can be characterised as a 'fear to tread.'

In terms of future trends, there is a sense that the next phase of green claims will reflect a shift away from looking for 'quick wins', towards brands making strategic and longer term decisions about how their brand 'fits' with environmental responsibility.

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