The Ad Standards Agency has been featured on Environmental Graffiti several times in the past, always over its crackdowns on companies making false green claims in their advertisements.
A Malaysian palm oil plantation.
The British agency is at it again, this time taking on one of the more ridiculous examples of greenwashing in recent history. This time, they’re taking on an advertisement by the Malaysian Palm Oil council.
Palm oil is one product that should be familiar to many of our readers. Palm oil production has not traditionally been what you’d call environmentally friendly. Many palm oil plantations are on sites that were rainforests before they were cut to make way for oil trees. They’re also bad news for orang-utans. The animals lose their habitat when palm oil plantations replace native forests and plantation workers are notoriously cruel to the animals, bashing their skulls in an effort to rid the plantation of what many of them view as pests.
All of which makes the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s ad absolutely freaking ridiculous. The ad features shots of a palm oil plantation mixed with happy nature images of trees and wildlife, all while a voiceover claims: “its trees give life and help our planet to breathe, and give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna”, and adding a claim that the oil had been “sustainably produced” since 1917.
Unsurprisingly, several environmental groups took issue with the TV spot. Friends of the Earth and Friends of the Earth Europe submitted complaints to the ASA criticizing the ad as misleading. The ASA agreed.
The ASA said the ad “was likely to mislead viewers as to the environmental benefits of palm oil plantations compared with native rainforest”. They were also misleading because “there was not a consensus that there was a net benefit to the environment from Malaysia’s palm oil plantations”.
The ASA said that the Malaysian Palm Oil Council had failed to show that all palm oil in Malaysia was produced sustainably, which makes those claims of “sustainably produced since 1917” a bit dodgy.
The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees ad claims in the US, is overhauling its regulations on green claims in an effort to more reliably define what can be considered “sustainable”, “green”, etc. I think it’s time to take the same approach and come up with a more globally accepted definition of what can actually be considered “green” products. At the very least, a global definition could keep laughably non-environmentally friendly industries like the palm oil business from trying to claim their products are good for the earth.