INDONESIA: False 'Green' Ads Draw Global Scrutiny
With companies eager to tout their "green" credentials to
rein in marketers that make false or exaggerated claims.
In one of the latest examples, the United Kingdom's Advertising
Authority found this month that a series of television ads by the
Malaysian Palm Oil Council misleadingly claimed the industry was good
the environment. In one ad, which appeared on satellite channels
Europe, Asia and the U.S., a man jogs through a natural rain
interspersed with shots of palm-oil plantations and wildlife.
palm oil. Its trees give life and help our planet breathe," the
The problem: Oil-palm plantations, which produce a vegetable oil used
products such as margarine and soap, have often been planted in
cleared natural rain forests. In neighboring Indonesia, where
palm-oil companies own large operations, plantation development is
destroying the natural habitat of species such as the Sumatran
"We concluded that the ad was likely to mislead viewers as to
environmental benefits of oil-palm plantations, compared with native
forest," the U.K. authority ruled.
One limitation with these groups is that the fact-finding process
sometimes take so long that the offending ad is no longer on the air
the ruling is issued. That's what happened with the Malaysian Palm
Council, which wasn't affected by this month's decision, because it
already stopped showing its ad last year. The Advertising
Authority can take as long as a month to make a decision.
From the U.S. to Norway to Belgium, watchdog groups are trying to
against the rise in bogus environmental marketing, a practice known
greenwashing. In most cases, these groups are set up by the
industry and run by a third party, and they operate on the honor
When the watchdogs are set up, marketers and ad agencies agree to
their rulings, which often means dropping ads that are deemed
If the marketers later fail to do so, they run the risk of bad
or possibly even litigation. Only in a few countries, such as Norway,
regulators impose fines.
Environmental advocates say the increased vigilance is welcome, even
the watchdogs have limited powers. "Since the climate-change
issue is hot,
in Europe there's a load of 'greenwash' advertising," says Paul
a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe.
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees
claims, began hearings this month to determine the kinds of claims
can genuinely qualify as green marketing. The FTC plans to update
environmental advertising guidelines, which were last revised in
Those guidelines set standards for terms such as "recyclable"
"biodegradable" in the advertising of products. But they
don't deal with
standards for trendier environmental claims such as "carbon
where a company asserts that it has offset the amount of carbon
heat-trapping greenhouse gas) emitted in making its product.
Sometimes, companies try to knock a rival business's products as bad
the environment to gain a competitive edge. The National
Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, a U.S.
advertising body, last year ruled that Born Free LLP, a distributor
infant feeding bottles, had to drop ads that claimed that the plastic
in a competitor's bottles was unsafe for both the environment and
The division says it heard no environmental cases from 2000 to 2006,
In Norway, government regulators in September banned all car ads
stating that their vehicles are "green," "clean"
friendly" on the grounds that all car production leads to more,
carbon emissions. The Belgian industry-run, advertising-standard
in October ruled that Swedish auto maker Saab Automobile, a unit
General Motors Corp., must pull a print campaign in which it claimed
its "Biopower" range of cars make the roads "finally
Despite the regulatory backlash, companies are often loath to use
language to advertise their environmental claims for fear the ads
stand out, says Mike Longhurst, a London-based executive with
McCann-Erickson, a unit of Interpublic Group.
"Clients prefer to say it's good for the environment, rather than
so bad for the environment," Mr. Longhurst says.
Malaysia's palm-oil industry decided to come out with its TV ad
environmentalists recently have stepped up attacks on palm oil,
a major driver of forest loss: Trees soak up carbon dioxide, and
them down emits huge amounts of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas back
the atmosphere, spurring global warming.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council, a grouping of producers, hired
Worldwide, a unit of New York-based Omnicom Group, to promote the
industry's green credentials. "We decided it was about time we
public-service announcement to the consumer," says Yusof Basiron,
executive of the palm-oil council.
But the U.K body ruled that by blending footage of rain forests
oil-palm plantations, the ads misled the public.
The council maintains that since 1990, all oil-palm plantations in
Malaysia have been planted on already denuded land, not natural
forests. It also says it didn't mean to imply that oil-palm
were as biodiverse as rain forests.
"A lot of the implications were something we didn't intend in the
- 183 Environment
- 190 Natural Resources