JBS pulls ‘aspirational’ net zero claims as confusion about environmental claims mounts

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Hispanolistic
Source: Getty/Hispanolistic

Related tags Sustainability green guides Ftc

Meat-packing giant JBS begrudgingly agreed to discontinue “aspirational” claims about its goal to reach ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 after failing to convince an advertising watchdog that consumers would not interpret the commitment as a “guarantee” or “promise.”

The company’s concession follows a failed appeal in which JBS asked the National Advertising Review Board to overturn the National Advertising Division’s recommendation in February that JBS discontinue five “net zero” claims.

The non-profit Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy originally flagged to the NAD claims it alleged were misleading and overstated environmental benefits, including: “JBS is committing to be net zero by 2040,” “Global Commitment to Achieve Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2040,” “Bacon, chicken wings and steak with net zero emissions. It’s possible,” and “Leading change across the food industry and achieving our goal of net zero by 2040 will be a challenge. Anything less is not an option.”

In a May 25 decision​ made public yesterday, the NARB affirmed JBS should discontinue all but the last of these claims, which it deemed fine when presented by itself.

Even though JBS said it “disagrees with the NAD and NARB’s interpretation of how consumers perceive the challenged claims,” it said it will discontinue them.

The company’s concession and the BBB’s decision come at a time when environmental benefit claims are increasingly in the spotlight, including the Federal Trade Commission’s announcement​ late last year that it will formally review its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or so-called “Green Guides,” for the first time in 10 years. As part of the review, FTC said it would consider providing additional clarification on the use of “environmental benefit claims,” recycling instructions and claims about carbon offsets, net zero emissions, biodegradability and organic status.

When should companies be held accountable for “aspirational” claims?

Fundamental to the decision is whether consumers understand sustainability claims and the feasibility of meeting them.

For example, JBS argued its claim to be net zero by 2040 was “aspirational” and the consumers “understand that there is no certainty that one’s aspirations will ultimately be realized.”

It further argued that because it had set the goal so far in the future that consumers would not expect it to have a specific plan in place to meet the goal at the time it was set.

It also argued that “net zero” did not mean a business would eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions associated with its business, but rather could “offset” lingering emissions after reduction efforts were in place.

NAD and NARB disagreed, arguing that advertisers must be able to demonstrate that goals and aspirations are not “merely illusory,” and a reasonable consumer would interpret from JBS’ claims to mean it was already “acting toward specific objectives and measurable outcomes that would enable its operations to have net zero impact on the environment by 2040.”

While JBS acknowledged in the discussion it did not have all the answers, it further defended its aspirations by pointing to incremental steps it had already undertaken when it set the goal, including spending millions of dollars and committing more than $1b committed more to its goals.

However, NARB argued this showed the company was in the “exploratory stage of its effort directed toward the net zero 2040 goal,” not that it had a formal or vetted plan as could be reasonably expected by consumers.

It added that consumers are “unlikely to understand what is involved in a business enterprise reaching net zero,” but that they are likely to interpret the advertising as communicating a goal is feasible and a plan is being implemented.

JBS stands by its claims

Having failed to win the appeal, JBS said it comply with the NARB’s recommendations, but it reiterated its belief that it “truthfully and accurately communicated its intent to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040.”

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