Oil Majors and Industrials Under Close Scrutiny in the Netherlands for CO2-Neutral Advertising Claims

On September 15, 2021, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee ("ACC"), regulating compliance with the Dutch Environmental Advertising Code ("EAC") applicable to all environmental claims in advertising, issued two decisions regarding the "Drive CO2 neutral" Shell campaign, following complaints made by consumers and students.

In the first decision (2021/00180), the complaint involved an advertisement on a Shell tanker reading, "I am delivering CO2 neutral, you too?," accompanied by an image of a rainforest. The claimant argued that Shell created a false impression of delivering fuel in a CO2-neutral manner, while the mere act of transporting fuel in order to sell it to customers contributes to increased carbon dioxide emissions. The claimant also objected to the depiction of the rainforest in the advertisement, as it allegedly wrongly suggested that Shell contributed to the preservation of the rainforest.

In its decision, the ACC considered that the advertisement can be understood in different ways, which contributed to its misleading character. The campaign could be understood to either mean that the Shell trucks transport sustainable fuel or that Shell is a CO2-neutral company. According to the ACC, consumers could easily be misled by this, because the emphasis (partly due to the image of the rainforest) is on "CO2 neutral," while the cargo (fossil fuel) is undeniably not CO2 neutral, nor is the company Shell itself (yet). The ACC therefore found that the advertisement violated the EAC and recommended that Shell stop such advertisement.

In the second decision (2021/00190), the complaint involved several expressions made by Shell as part of the campaign, including, "It is important to reduce CO2 emissions as much as possible. Can't do that? Then together with Shell you can take care of the environment by driving CO2 neutral" and suggesting that by paying one cent extra per liter of fuel tanked, customers can compensate for the corresponding CO2 emissions. According to the claimants, Shell falsely claimed that CO2 emissions can be compensated or neutralized, arguing that it is scientifically certain that the production and use of fossil fuels releases measurable CO2 emissions that enter the planet's carbon cycle permanently.

In its decision, the ACC considered that Shell's environmental claims were too definite, and that the average consumer would understand terms such as "neutralize" to encompass a full offset of the harmful effect of CO2 emissions on the environment. According to the ACC, Shell failed to demonstrate how paying one cent extra per liter of fuel purchased would allow for such neutralization. The ACC therefore found that the advertisement violated the EAC and recommended that Shell stop advertising this way.

These two decisions illustrate the growing regulatory interest in and scrutiny of greenwashing and reflect the increasing concerns of civil society about climate change. Oil majors and other industrials appear to be under close scrutiny by advertising regulation authorities throughout the European Union. Caution is therefore advised when using absolute statements, phrases, or claims. Phrases such as "CO2 neutral," "full CO2 compensation," or anything comparable should be avoided unless based on sound, independent, verifiable, and widely recognized evidence.

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