UK Group Seeks to Put the Kibosh on Auto Greenwash

Want to win people over to greener cars? Then skip the greenwash and tell them about the benefits straight up. That’s the message in a new set of guidelines for automakers marketing environmental claims to consumers in the UK.

Released this week by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and ISBA (a trade group representing the UK’s biggest advertisers), the guidelines cover voluntary best practices for advertising passenger cars and light commercial vehicles across the spectrum from press releases to corporate websites to showrooms to sponsorships.

The idea is to help build trust among consumers, who as Greg Archer, Director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, explained in a statement, “need to believe in marketing messages if they are to accept and adopt lower carbon options.” It will be important to put this in place early on, since in some cases overhyping a company or tech that ultimately falls short of expectations can cause skepticism and distrust in an industry that could otherwise be quite promising. (That’s part of what we’ve seen unravel with biofuels.)

The UK trio has laid out some principles for environmental claims that are fairly basic (e.g. be specific, transparent, capable of substantiation), as well as more detailed guidance on questions like how to convey fuel economy and CO2 performance. For example, if an automaker opts to tout the results from only one drive cycle (as opposed to the separate ratings for city vs. highway driving), the guidelines call for use of the combined cycle data.

As automakers prepare to launch a new generation of plug-in cars over the next few years, preliminary advertising efforts have already highlighted the need for some kind of mechanism for companies to do a gut-check before launching a campaign that ends up sounding like a bunch of greenwash.

In May, the UK’s independent advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), decided to ban a print ad for Renault’s electric Fluence Z.E. model, saying claims that the car would cut emissions by at least 90 percent compared to a current diesel model would mislead readers.

Renault’s ad noted in small print that the emissions reduction calculation used data from the “French average electric mix,” but as the ASA pointed out in the explanation of its ruling, France’s electric grid has ” significantly lower levels of CO2 emissions than electricity produced in the UK,” due to heavy reliance on nuclear generation.

That’s not the only challenge that has been brought against Renault’s electric vehicle marketing. The ASA also banned one of Renault’s TV ads for its electric car lineup earlier this year based on a conclusion that the ad “gave the impression that the entire production use and disposal of the vehicle would not produce emissions,” Marketing Week reported at the time.

In the U.S., one of the most high-profile marketing campaigns for a plug-in vehicle centered on fuel economy. Last summer General Motors (s GM) made the bold claim that its upcoming Chevy Volt, a plug-in vehicle with a small gas engine, will get 230 MPG for city driving. Nissan (s NSANY) (which has been touting a 100-mile range for its upcoming all-electric LEAF based on the optimistic scenario of driving in stop-and-go city traffic in temperate climates) countered with an announcement that the LEAF sedan will get 367 MPG.

GM, which has since backed off the 230 MPG claim shortly after the pervasive campaign, said at the time that it had used “tentative EPA methodology” for testing plug-in vehicles, a 51-mile urban driving cycle, and reportedly 40 miles of electricity and 11 miles on the gas engine. But the EPA said it had not published even a draft protocol for testing plug-in vehicles like the Volt. Nissan, meanwhile, neglected to explain how it calculated the triple-digit MPG figure for a car that uses no gasoline.

Image courtesy of General Motors

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