It was a decision to send a chill straight from the freezer cabinet to the boardroom. Which was probably the point.
The Advertising Standards Authority said this month that Tesco had failed to show that buying its Plant Chef burger was an environmentally-friendly choice, barring the supermarket chain from repeating its adverts for its range of plant protein-based foods.
This was odd. We all vaguely understand that eating less meat is a win for the planet. The regulator accepted that as well. But, it said, Tesco “did not hold any evidence in relation to the full lifecycle of any products in the Plant Chef range”. In other words, it’s not enough to be right. You’d better be able to prove it.
That’s surely the correct standard. But given the clouds of green guff emanating from all corners of the business world, it feels a tough result. It is “inconceivable”, in the words of one sustainability expert, that a plant burger would be near to the emissions of an equivalent beef burger.
Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, a partner at Lewis Silkin, argues that it is difficult to get robust, cradle-to-grave data including transport, packaging and retail, particularly when making comparisons with competitor products, and worries that this sets an “unrealistically high bar for environmental claims”. The decision should certainly have sent others scurrying to check their evidence (or indeed whether they have any).
The assault on greenwashing is only really just getting going. Lawsuits are being filed against heavy-emitting sectors from groups such as ClientEarth, financial regulators are cracking down on the lack of investment rigour in ESG-badged funds and UK consumer regulators, the ASA and the Competition and Markets Authority, are divvying up the economy to pick off poor practice sector by sector.
It’s overdue. Even in 2014, the European Union found that three-quarters of non-food consumer products had an environmental claim or label. Research from NYU Stern finds products marketed as sustainable are growing at more than 2.5 times the rate of their unsustainable peers, and command a premium. There are a baffling array of labels and pseudo-Kitemarks used, with more than 200 in the EU alone. The CMA reckons 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading.
Ensuring that customers aren’t being wooed with dodgy claims or empty rhetoric could itself cause some confusion. Regulators are still trying to pin down definitions. The ASA has said it will look into consumer understanding of terms including carbon neutral, net zero or hybrid. The CMA suggested the government come up with legislative definitions of some terms, including “recyclable”, which may be true under ideal conditions but not for the average household.
There will also be mixed messages. You could conclude from the Tesco case that staying big picture and broad brush would be safer (especially as a similar Sainsbury’s advert advising using half chicken, half chickpeas in a curry got the nod). But the regulators are also cracking down on generic marketing or vague terms such as eco-friendly, in favour of specific, evidence-based claims: the ASA this year objected to Alpro’s “Good for the Planet” marketing on those grounds.
Everyone has an interest in getting this right. Regulators see a protection issue. Campaigners — although there are vested interests sniping from all sides — generally want consumers making genuinely-beneficial purchases.
And companies should be wary of losing the younger, higher-growth customers they’re chasing to cynicism. Research to be published later this month from Brodie and Public First found more concern about the threat of climate change across the age groups, but with rising scepticism that businesses are trying to solve rather than causing society’s challenges.
That was particularly pronounced among 18 to 24-year-olds, half of whom saw business as a cause not a solution to problems. More than a third of those younger than 35 agreed with the statement that “businesses who say they’re better for the environment are lying.”
When Morningstar did a detailed review of funds marketed to investors as sustainable in Europe, it slashed the number it recognised by more than 1,200, cutting the assets in its universe of approved funds by 40 per cent.
The same process may need to happen on the shop shelves, for everyone’s sake.