Caution urged on use of life-cycle analyses in product claims

Procter & Gamble has been rapped on the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a claim that disposable nappies cause no more damage to the environment than reusable nappies. The ruling is a vital one on the use of life-cycle analyses (LCAs) in product promotions, although the ASA was happy to accept the results of another LCA prepared by P&G in a similar case on aerosols.

The ASA's ruling was made in response to a complaint by the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) about P&G's leaflet advertisements which claimed that "studies undertaken in Europe and the US reveal that there is little difference in overall environmental impact between paper and cloth nappies."

This "environmental equivalence" claim was hotly contested by WEN, which claimed that two LCAs commissioned by P&G had been biased in favour of disposables (ENDS Report 198, pp 24-6).

While the four available LCAs comparing disposables and reusables often made diverging assumptions in critical areas - such as the number of reusable nappies used per change - and quantified different groups of pollutants associated with the two products, the ASA chose to focus on a different issue.

While not formally upholding WEN's complaint, the ASA's ruling says that "the question of environmental preferability depended to a large extent upon subjective interpretation of the relative importance that should be attached to different criteria (e.g., energy consumption, water pollution, resource consumption)." It goes on to advise P&G that this should be reflected in future advertisements "as simply one side of an on-going argument."

The verdict has reinforced the need for companies to take care in using the results of LCAs as a basis for product claims. However, another recent ASA ruling suggests that the caution need not be taken to extremes.

Late last year, the television advertising watchdog rejected a complaint by the British Aerosol Manufacturers Association against a P&G advertisement claiming that its novel aerosol has a superior environmental performance to conventional aerosols (ENDS Report 202, pp 24-5). The ASA quickly followed suit - and cleared P&G on the basis of its LCA research.

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