Greenpeace has used its YouTube channel to launch a powerful piece of advocacy advertising. The ad attacks PZ Cussons, owner of the Carex brand of hand wash, as well as 7 other FMCG companies, for allegedly failing to remove Palm Oil sourced from Indonesian forests from its supply chain. According to the PZ Cussons website, "Securing a long-term sustainable supply of palm oil for our global operations is a priority."

But the lyrics of the ad, which is a parody of a typical ad for a hand wash, claim that Carex is "dirtier than you think" and urges the brand to "come clean about palm oil." The ad ends with someone washing their hands using Carex, with a disturbing image of a dead orang-utan in the bath reflected in the mirror of the bathroom cabinet. This is a classic but graphic allegation of green-washing, with some shock tactics thrown in for good measure. Its hard to imagine that it would make it past Clearcast without a post 9pm restriction.

Greenpeace have focused on the organ-utan, claiming that their population in Borneo has fallen by half since 1999, with more than 100,000 having been lost in the last 16 years. The biggest threat is habitat loss, with an area of rainforest almost the size of the UK being lost between 1990 and 2015.  

On Monday 19th March, Greenpeace published Moment of Truth, its report which alleges that several brands are going to miss their target for achieving a clean palm oil supply chain by 2020 and that brands continue to use palm oil that comes from producers that are still destroying rainforests. In January 2018, Greenpeace persuaded 8 leading brands to name the suppliers of their palm oil. Now Greenpeace alleges that these suppliers are still engaged in destruction of the rain forest and concludes that brands are a long way from achieving their aspirations for claims of 'deforestation-free' palm oil.

In response, PZ Cussons has said that they met Greenpeace on 19 March and provided a list of their key direct palm oil suppliers, and the mills from which they source. A spokesman is quoted as saying "All our key direct suppliers have made ‘No Deforestation/No Peat/No Exploitation’ commitments and are members of The Forest Trust , supporting transparency of mills through their public dashboards. Working with our NGO partner TFT, we have had full traceability back to the refinery since 2016 and can currently trace 86% of our palm oil back to the mill. Longer-term, we seek to achieve full transparency including ingredients derived from palm oil."

So how does advertising regulation apply in these situations? The preface to the CAP Code of Advertising Practice states that it does not apply to "marketing communications for causes and ideas in non-paid-for space, except where they contain a direct solicitation for donations as part of the marketer's own fund-raising activities." And yet many NGO's, including Greenpeace, seem happy to submit to the ASA's jurisdiction, presumably because they crave the extra media attention, even if a complaint is upheld.

It may therefore be open to PZ Cussons to challenge Greenpeace to substantiate any claims that are capable of objective substantiation. One claim stands out in particular, being displayed as an on-screen super: "Indonesian rain forests are being destroyed to make palm oil for products like Carex. Pushing orang-utan's to extinction." However, even if Greenpeace failed to fulfil its obligation to substantiate the causal link between rain forest destruction and the production of Carex, resulting in an upheld complaint, that might be a pyric victory for PZ Cussons, given all the attendant publicity. On the other hand, if the complaint was not upheld, with ASA effectively endorsing Greenpeace's allegations, that would be even worse.

The lessons for brands is a tough one: you can be called to account for your environmental claims, and successfully defending yourself is not going to be easy.