In today’s world, businesses often strive to present themselves as environmentally responsible. Yet, recent events have raised concerns about the sincerity of some companies’ environmental claims, even for major players like Anglian Water.
Anglian Water’s greenwashing adverts
Last autumn, Anglian Water aired an advertising campaign claiming their commitment to preserving clean waterways through the creation of wildlife-friendly wetlands. But, this declaration was met with scepticism due to Anglian Water’s history of sewage dumping. The ads featured a voiceover declaring, “Everything [Anglian Water] does today is for tomorrow. Never still, never stop. Anglian Water. Love every drop.” These ads sparked a series of complaints, accusing them of being misleading.
The controversy erupted shortly after Water UK issued an unconditional apology on behalf of English water companies, including Anglian Water. The apology addressed the widespread problem of sewage dumping into waterways across the country, highlighting the seriousness of the issue.
Anglian Water’s environmental breaches
One significant incident contributing to Anglian Water’s credibility crisis stemmed from their unlawful discharge of millions of litres of untreated sewage from a recycling centre in Essex in the summer of 2018. In April this year, the company was fined £2.65 million for that. This is the largest penalty ever imposed for an environmental breach in the East of England, emphasising the gravity of the offence.
The ASA’s take on Anglian Water’s environmental claims
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) further underscored concerns about Anglian Water’s green claims. Despite the company’s assertion of wildlife-protecting initiatives, the ASA pointed out that Anglian Water received an environmental performance assessment (EPA) rating of just two stars out of four. This rating suggests that the company needs to make significant improvements in its environmental efforts.
In response to these developments, Anglian Water claimed that the adverts accurately depicted their environmental initiatives and long-term improvements. They argued that the ads were part of a broader campaign explaining each initiative and providing a comprehensive overview of their environmental impact. They also emphasised that they did not intentionally discharge sewage into rivers and open waters.
Despite this, the ASA upheld its decision saying that it “accepted that Anglian Water were carrying out a number of activities that could have a positive impact on the environment,” but that “because they also carried out activities that caused harm to the environment, which contradicted the overall impression of the ad, [the ASA] considered that was material information which should have been made clear in the ads.”
Broad crackdown on deceptive advertising
The Anglian Water case is not an isolated incident but, part of a broader trend of tightening regulations surrounding sustainability claims. In 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) introduced a “Green Claims Code” aimed at protecting consumers from deceptive environmental claims.
Towards the end this year, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) plans to introduce new rules to combat greenwashing in financial products and services. The regulations will apply to all FCA-regulated firms, ensuring stringent standards for products making sustainability claims. Additionally, the forthcoming UK Digital Markets, Competition, and Consumers Bill is poised to empower the CMA to investigate and penalise businesses for breaches of consumer law, potentially imposing fines of up to 10% of a company’s global revenue.
Similar initiatives are taking shape in the European Union and the United States. In March 2023, the European Commission proposed a new EU directive that sets out new minimum norms for how companies substantiate, communicate and verify their environmental claims to consumers in the EU. Meanwhile, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission is contemplating updates to its “Green Guides” to prevent deceptive environmental claims.
Heightened scrutiny on green claims
The Anglian Water case serves as an illustration of the growing scrutiny of environmental claims made by companies. As consumers become increasingly environmentally conscious, they expect businesses to back their claims with tangible evidence of commitment.
In an era where environmental responsibility has become paramount, companies like Anglian Water need to aim to be transparent and authentic in their environmental advertising if they are to build trust and credibility with the public.