Warning to public relations regarding “green” claims

The Advertising Standards Authority has warned companies not to make grandiose claims  about environmental credentials which cannot be scientifically substantiated.  The particular case relates to tree-planting schemes, as carbon offsetting is this year’s simplistic solution to corporate social responsibility.

When will PR practitioners realise, CSR requires strategic not tactical foundations?  Promoting carbon offsetting schemes is poor public relations – about wanting to look good rather than being good.  Presented as win-win solutions, organisations – and their customers – buy into an environmental “exchange relationship” with Mother Nature, based on a simplistic mathematical equation. 

In particular, the major carbon offset companies have been busy promoting guilt free motoring where, for less than the price of a tank of fuel, you can neutralise your carbon emissions thanks to some tree planting or other initiative, largely in the 3rd world (adding in another layer of feel good motivation).  Lex Vehicle Leasing is one of the latest automotive companies to promote “peace of mind” to “environmentally conscious drivers and businesses” with its Carbon Neutral Driving Scheme .  But they are not alone – even the Guild of Motoring Writers has a carbon offset partnership.

But at last, the simplistic argument is being challenged – not least because those behind the conscience-salving schemes are raking it in big time.  The Guardian claims the market for carbon offsetting will top £300m within 3 years – with trading amounting to £60m globally this year, up from £20m in 2005.  The campaign group Fern is also highlighting shortcomings in the carbon offset solution.

If PR practitioners seriously want to help organisations gain a reputation as credible corporate citizens, they need to understand we need a “communal relationship” with the planet; where there isn’t always an easy or painless short term payback.  In his latest book, Andy Green says values are what you believe in even when they hurt – this is never more true than when communicating social responsibility.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.