Reprimand for Unilever over environmental claims

A lack of clarity around environmental claims – including the use of 50% recycled content in packaging for Persil washing liquid – has seen brand-owner Unilever reprimanded by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Unilever's 'green' claims for Persil have fallen foul of the ASA (picture: Shutterstock)

In what is likely to be seen as a benchmark ruling today, (31 August), the ASA found in favour of a complaint about a TV advert earlier this year when Persil was advertised with a message that the brand is “kinder to our planet”.

A complainant challenged the claims in the advertisement and asked whether they were misleading and could be substantiated.

Unilever said the ad focused on two features of their liquid detergents that made them kinder.

The first was washing at lower temperatures which saved energy.

Secondly, Persil said that their plastic bottles now contained at least 50% post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR), reducing their use of virgin plastic and carbon derived from fossil fuels in packaging.

Unilever and its agency Clearwater, argued that Persil was kinder to the planet because of the recycled content along with the lower energy use.

The ASA stated: “They said using recycled plastic ensured bottles were kept in a circular plastic economy and out of landfill. The recycled high density polyethylene (HDPE) that the bottles were made of had a lower carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of resin compared with virgin HDPE plastic.”

Unilever and its agency Clearwater, argued that Persil was kinder to the planet because of the recycled content along with the lower energy use.

Breach

In its assessment, the ASA said the ad breached the BCAP Code on advertising to which broadcasters must adhere.

The BCAP Code required that the “basis of environmental claims must be clear”. It also required that absolute claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation, but that claims such as “greener” or “friendlier” could be justified if the advertised product provided a total environmental benefit over that of the advertiser’s previous product or competitor products, and the basis of the comparison was clear.

Benefits

While the ad highlighted the benefits of the detergents – being effective in cold and quick cycles, and the use of recycled plastic – it was not clear if those were new or recent developments, and whether they were specific to the advertised detergents or applied more widely to Persil’s range of products. One of the featured products was also labelled as ‘new’, but not the remaining two.

The ASA continued: “In addition to the requirement to make clear the basis of environmental claims, we would also require evidence that such claims were based on the full cycle of the advertised product. Although we acknowledged Persil were undertaking actions to reduce the environmental impact of their products, we had not seen evidence or analysis to demonstrate the overall environmental impact of the featured liquid detergents over their full life cycles, compared with Persil’s own previous products or other products, in support of the claim kinder to our planet.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, the ASA, noted: “We concluded that the basis of the claim “kinder to our planet” had not been made clear. Additionally, in the absence of evidence demonstrating that the full life cycle of the product had a lesser environmental impact compared to a previous formulation, we concluded the ad was likely to mislead.

“Absolute claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation. Comparative claims such as ‘greener’ or ‘friendlier’ can be justified, for example, if the advertised product or service provides a total environmental benefit over that of the advertiser’s previous product or service or competitor products or services and the basis of the comparison is clear.”

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