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Greenwashing: banned for business, permitted for politicians

Rae Burdon

Probably not the best advertising in the world, ‘greenwashing’ – deceptive environmental marketing – is very much in the regulators’ sights. Only recently, the ASA have ruled against Unilever, Tesco and Innocent Drinks, no less. And the government’s own statutory authority the Competition and Markets Authority, who publish the Green Claims Code, is in the process of scrutinising the green claims of three major fashion retailers:  ASOS, Boohoo and Asda’s George.

What’s good for the business goose, however, doesn’t work for the political gander. Electoral advertising – which is much of political advertising – is exempt from any kind of restriction on factual claims and also enjoys, ironically, remarkably opaque rules on transparency.

The leaflet above from the MP for South Cambridgeshire is not unusual for political advertising in as much as it contains a number of unsubstantiated or unclear claims that would be unlikely to pass muster in a commercial context. Those who live near the River Cam will be interested to hear, for example, what kind of protection is afforded to them: the Rivers Trust reports in 2021 two ‘sewer storm overflows’ into the Cam. Political advertising is a dirty business.

Perhaps more remarkable, however, are the green clothes in which the leaflet dresses itself. These are, according to our Twitter source, ‘straight out of the Green Party style guide’ which utilises, for example, a ‘5 deg tilted stripe’ and very similar colours of 2 greens  ‘borrowed’ by the Conservative party leaflet. Even the typeface echoes the Green Party’s.

Let us suppose, for a delicious moment, that political party advertising was regulated in the same way as any other advertising – cat food, for example (speaking of which, nine out of ten voters think that it should be a legal requirement for factual claims in political advertising to be accurate) and let’s say that Whiskas stuck the Felix cat into their advertising. CAP code rule 3.36 states: Marketing communications must not create confusion between the marketer/advertiser and its competitors or between the marketer and the competitor’s product, trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark and that of a competitor.

Another likely result for Whiskas, as well as a biffing from the ASA, is an appearance in court, as advertisers protect their trademarks and ‘distinguishing signs’ rather more zealously than politicians protect rivers. In the case of the South Cambridgeshire sewage above, however, no problem. Politicians know they can be deceptive in advertising, so they are, as our reports here demonstrate. 

Finally, we declare an interest: the Green Party, together with some other political parties, is a supporter of Reform Political Advertising. However, they weren’t in touch – we picked up their comments on Twitter. We don’t speak for the Green Party or any other: we let the (accurate) facts do that.

We are keeping a tally of examples we come across on this Twitter thread.

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