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'Environmentally friendly' fire (surely that's an oxymoron?)

There is a big difference between “environmentally friendly” and “environmentally friendlier”, and the Advertising Standards Authority just gave Masport a reminder to that effect.

Dan Winfield

In a recent decision, the ASA complaints board upheld a complaint against a Masport Fires advertisement in which the presenter said, in part, that “Masport wood burning fires are affordable and an environmentally friendly way to keep your family warm".

The decision was almost a foregone conclusion once the complaint was made.   Not only does the first principle in the Code for Environment Claims state that generalised claims for environment benefit need to be assessed on the complete life cycle of the product (the manufacture of the fire place itself and its use), it goes on to give “environmentally friendly” as an example of what it considers “absolute claims and therefore unacceptable".

As with all TV advertisements, before broadcasting, Masport’s advertisement had been approved by the Commercial Approvals Bureau (CAB), and CAB responded to the complaint as part of the process.  Interestingly, in CAB’s response, it stated that the advert at issue was a 15 second cut-down of a 30 second advert which had visually qualified the claim by reference to use of sustainable fuel sources.

In response, the ASA pointed out it had previously ruled that such qualifiers do not make an absolute claim acceptable, and use of “environmentally friendly,” with qualifier or otherwise, breaches the code.

ASA decisions are often reported in the media resulting in negative publicity, and this decision was no exception.   However, perhaps more importantly, the Environmental Claims Code is in line with the Commerce Commission’s “Guidelines for Green Marketing”, which outline the commission’s view on what is and is not acceptable under the Fair Trading Act.  Unlike an adverse ASA decision, breaches of the Fair Trading Act can result in significant fines and summary conviction. 

Any company looking to make environmental claims, no matter how innocuous they seem, would do well to familiarise themselves with the ASA codes and the Commerce Commission’s guidelines.

Dan Winfield is a marketing and branding law expert with Duncan Cotterill