Tesco has been rebuked by the UK advertising watchdog after the country’s largest supermarket chain failed to show that its Plant Chef burgers and plant protein-based foods were more environmentally friendly than their meat equivalents.
The Advertising Standards Authority, which has launched a crackdown on so-called “greenwashing”, barred Tesco from repeating a series of adverts on TV, radio, online and in the press which said consumers could make a difference to the planet by buying the products.
Regulators globally are setting their sights on companies exaggerating the environmental credentials of products and services in this way.
In the US, the securities regulator plans to crack down on exaggerated claims about the responsible credentials of investment products. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has also pledged to tackle misleading green claims.
Tesco’s Plant Chef products, launched in 2019, are among the ranges brought out in recent years by retailers and food manufacturers using proteins from peas, beans and other plants to create alternatives to meat-based foods such as burgers and sausages.
Such products are often marketed heavily on sustainability credentials, after a landmark report in 2019 by the EAT-Lancet commission urged a global switch to “more plant-based foods and fewer animal source foods” to reduce emissions and promote biodiversity.
The ASA investigated the Tesco adverts, which featured a woman “doing her bit for the planet” by switching to Plant Chef, after receiving complaints. In its defence, Tesco relied on general evidence that diets that include meat have a greater environmental impact.
But the supermarket “did not hold any evidence in relation to the full lifecycle of any of the products in the Plant Chef range, or of the burger featured in the ads”, the ASA said.
It told Tesco to “ensure that in future they did not make environmental claims about their products unless they held sufficient evidence to substantiate the claims”. Adverts lacking “robust evidence” were “likely to be misleading”, the regulator said.
The watchdog said last year that it would scrutinise claims relating to energy, waste disposal and food sustainability as part of a broader project to “[shine] a brighter regulatory spotlight on environmental matters”.
Tesco said: “We’re committed to making it easy and affordable for customers to incorporate plant-based meat alternatives into their diets and recipes. After all, little changes can help make a difference.
“We offer hundreds of plant-based options and while we are disappointed by this outcome, our customers can continue to count on us to help them enjoy a better balanced diet with plenty more delicious and affordable plant-based products in the pipeline.”
A second complaint, against adverts by rival supermarket Sainsbury’s, was not upheld. Those adverts, which did not refer to specific brands, said that “by mixing half chickpeas with half the chicken in your curry, your dish will be better for you and better for the planet”.
The ASA said those adverts referred to generally accepted principles of an environmentally friendly diet. It rejected complaints that imported chickpeas might be less eco-friendly than domestically produced meat, given that “in some scenarios, foods which were grown abroad and imported had lower carbon emissions than the same foodstuff produced domestically”.