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ASA ban on our Zero Carbon Strapline. Reflections after a week of hell.

Filed under: Latest News

ASA bans our strapline: “Zero Carbon Solar”.

Dark winter solstice reflections on a week of hell.

Solar news: 21 Dec 2011.

To sum up, last week, on 14 December 2011, our 12 year old strapline “Zero Carbon Solar” was condemned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority as a “misleading environmental claim”.

Rather than sunshine, over the last week, a midden seems to have fallen out of the sky onto our heads and I thought you might be interested to know about its smell. We are, of course complying with the ASA’s requirements. It’s about a seemingly anomalous, but potentially tentacular ban by the ASA, a ban on us saying “Zero Carbon Solar”.

Despite the government (and all the underpinning building regs) calling for all new homes to be built in 2016 to be “Zero Carbon Homes”, we have just been BANNED by the ASA for saying “Zero Carbon Solar”, even though this is something we have been saying without ASA challenge for the past 12 years.

A week on, our current approach is:

  • Obviously, to comply, making it clear that we were surprised at the decision (by using the overprint, via twitter etc), to audit and change all material starting with the most prominent (eg google adwords, home page, email footers, etc)
  • Engagement at a broad conceptual level, eg to try to prompt UK govt and the wider energy industry in UK or maybe beyond as well, to take a good hard look at this issue, because there are some glaring anomalies, for example, while UK govt says there are ZC homes, on the other hand, the wind and nuclear energy industries do not say ZC about their energy. (Note the distinction between energy and technology. There is one potentially confusing argument that solar energy is low carbon but that solar technology in use is zero carbon or even better than zero carbon!)
  • To point out other multiple noncompliances (to their authors, not to the ASA!) of UK-published claims of possible noncompliance, eg “Zero Carbon” cars, yachts, holidays, offices, schools, communities, planet, etc, as this might help to widen the debate and to bring forward consistency – and the holy grail of solid consumer confidence in green claims.
  • To seek permission to appeal to an independent reviewer; however ASA are refusing to supply requested info on some internal processes that might be of relevance. ASA’s refusal to reply to several questions makes it tricky to appeal on the basis of evidence.

If merrie readers might want to act further on the point about engagement, ie to tell people whom they know who might be intrigued about the knock-on aspects of this apparent anomaly, I would be delighted.

ASA concluded that our strapline was likely to mislead consumers to their detriment. But when asked exactly what sort of detriment would this be, and whether they could you exemplify a detriment, the refused to reply, as they did in response to several other questions which we thought might be pertinent to making an appeal.

So, what are the Zero Carbon Solar arguments?

Several, possibly watershed-type points of interest are:

Not in our favour:

  • Offshore wind and the nuclear industry (both applications are not attached to homes) apparently do not make any Zero Carbon Claims. We are obviously way out of kilter with them.
  • All products emit carbon in manufacture. We have pointed this out on our site for years. We even have a discussion on carbon breakeven. We never claimed zero carbon manufacture, but ASA appear assume the consumer will infer we claim this. (We claimed zero carbon operation for our PV pumped solar.)
  • ASA had originally seemed to be working to precedent, in that they once banned BG from claiming “Zero Carbon” natural gas in an advert, even though it was carbon-offsetted robustly. ASA had initially referred to this precedent in their correspondence with me, but in a more recent letter they now say it had no bearing on their ban. ASA’s apparent ground-shifting again makes it tricky to appeal.

In our favour:

  • In relation to energy and carbon associated with buildings, DCLG want all now homes to be “zero carbon” by 2016. Zero Carbon Hub, who finally brokered a definition of “Zero Carbon Home” this spring, state in the attached paper that,  from their point of view, our two solar technologies (Solar PV and PV pumped solar thermal) are both zero carbon technologies, not low carbon technologies.
  • Bath University conducted a life cycle analysis of solar PV and of our PV pumped solar thermal system. They calculated that PV went 6 x beyond carbon breakeven and that solar thermal went 20 times beyond carbon breakeven. I can supply the report if you want. So really we should be claiming “better than zero carbon” since zero carbon is an understatement.
  • Govt refers repeatedly to “Low and Zero Carbon Technology”. Why on earth refer to Zero Carbon Technology if it does not actually exist as a valid word, at least in a marketing context?

The fallout could be huge. This decision obviously puts all Zero Carbon claims under scrutiny. Looking wider, will organisations seeking to sell or let Zero Carbon Homes” be banned from even making this claim? What might major housebuilders / social home providers, Greg Barker MP, Grant Shapps MP think of it all? Or John Prescott, who, I think, first coined the term Zero Carbon Home? I actually tried to email Greg Barker but my email to him bounced back. This is potentially a large scale issue which probably needs sorting out. But at what levels and scale? Well, here are some thoughts…

  • Working with whom? The Microgeneration or Renerwable Energy Sector? The Energy Sector, The Housing Sector? How about green cars etc? Consumer bodies? Green NGOs?
  • Where? Geographically, in UK or EU or globally? It would make sense to be able to speak with one voice.
  • How? Via ecolabels / ABCDEF energy rating schemes? Using BS / EN ISO standards.

Aarghhh. There really is a big  scale and scope question here!

Perhaps readers might want to ask the ASA:

  • Please could you explain this apparent anomaly: how can our government be allowed to say Zero Carbon Homes while the actual solar energy technologies which are sometimes deployed in such homes, technology which is put there to actually deliver this zero carbon impact, cannot be described the same way, as “zero carbon solar”?
  • Is the ASA effectively blanket-banning most use of the term Zero Carbon?” If so, how do you think it will impact on numerous government energy policy documents which refer to “Low and Zero Carbon Technology”? Should government never have said zero at all?

You might also like to ask for a comment from Government leaders, whose official policies and published documents may be affected (ie become ASA noncompliant) by this ASA ban, such as (these are ideas only) : Greg Barker, Geoff Huhne, Grant Shapps, Andrew Stunnell. Charles Hendry.

Structurally, for background, there is a three-party separation of functions: ASA / CAP / Reviewer, which is as follows:
1/ ASA take the complaint, prepare the case and arrange sanctions if necessary. 020 7492 2222. You can offer a comment direct to ASA, if you want, at the bottom of this page, here.

2/ CAP do the actual adjudication, because of this separation of roles. Interestingly, CAP appear to have done a consultation on energy labelling this year.  See here. But it seems that the nearest they came to consulting with the renewable energy industry was with Greenpeace.

Given the lack of renewable energy people at the consultation, I wonder whether ASA / CAP might have missed the point altogether that with microgeneration there might actually be net positive energy & carbon and not just A+++ etc?

3/ The Independent Reviewer. Personal details here. He exercises discretion to allow or to not allow a review, based on either process or decision criteria. I wrote a week ago asking for the normal 21 days to be extended so I could enjoy Christmas and New Year. No reply yet, apart from an autoresponder saying he would be back this week. Details of the appeal process are here.

I hope this is a useful briefing (and that it is not too long). Here’s looking forward to the next, sunnier, solstice. Merry XXXX Carbon Christmas and a Happy XXXX Carbon New Year!

From Barry.


Written and published by - Genfit
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