BP greenwashing complaint sets precedent for action on misleading ad campaigns

Media release

Tuesday 16 June 2020

An OECD complaint filed by ClientEarth lawyers alleging oil giant BP misled the public in its advertising campaign would have proceeded had the company not already committed to end the ad campaign, it was announced today.

In a decision lawyers say sets a precedent for complaints against corporate greenwashing, the UK National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (NCP) has assessed ClientEarth’s world first complaint as being material and substantiated, despite the complaint not proceeding due to BP ending its ad campaign.

In December 2019, ClientEarth lawyers lodged a complaint alleging BP’s global ‘Keep Advancing’ and ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ ad campaigns misled the public by focusing on BP’s low carbon energy products, when more than 96% of BP’s annual spend is on oil and gas.

In February 2020, BP withdrew its advertisements and its CEO Bernard Looney said they would not be replaced under the company’s new policy promising an end to ‘corporate reputation advertising’. He also committed BP to redirecting its advertising resources towards advocating for progressive climate policies.

Today the NCP, which sits within the UK’s Department for International Trade, released its initial assessment of ClientEarth’s complaint, which will not proceed further given BP has already withdrawn the campaign in question.

ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac said: “Oil and gas companies are spending millions to convince the public of their social licence to operate and deflect from their role in rapidly heating the planet.

“Our complaint called on BP to take down its advertising, and we welcome its decision to do so. We took issue with BP giving the impression that it’s racing to renewables, that its gas is cleaner, and that it is part of the climate solution, when the vast majority of its spend is still on fossil fuels.”

In its decision, the NCP found that ClientEarth had a legitimate interest in the complaint, and that it was material and substantiated.

Marjanac added: “Today’s decision sets a precedent for people to use the OECD guidelines to hold companies to account for their greenwashing on the basis of consumer interests – including in their advertising. Fossil fuel companies using advertising to mislead the public over their climate impact have been put on notice.

“Ideally all fossil fuel advertising should be banned unless it comes with a tobacco-style health warning about the risks of climate change, including the dangers of continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels. The public should not be misled, and fossil fuel companies must be accountable for the damage they do.”

Notes to Editors

  • The OECD is an international organisation of developed economies that work together on economic and social policy. It has developed a set of guidelines for responsible business conduct, covering areas including environment, information disclosure and consumer interests.
  • Our complaint stated that BP’s ads were in direct conflict with OECD guidelines on consumer interests. We specifically questioned:
    • The potentially misleading impression BP is giving in relation to its renewable energy investments, given that oil and gas makes up 96% of its annual spend.
    • The accuracy of BP’s statements around gas – which it describes as ‘cleaner burning’ – as well as the company’s claim that gas currently plays only a backup role on power grids, in support of, rather than displacing potential renewable energy generation.
    • BP’s assertions that increasing global energy demand, including greater use of gas, in the coming decades is essential to human development and progress, without recognising the scope for increased energy efficiency in developed economies and the way severe climate risk associated with increased fossil fuel energy consumption will impact on prosperity.
  • Provisions in the OECD guidelines include that:
    • Enterprises should contribute to economic, environmental and social progress with aim at sustainable development in countries where they operate.
    • Enterprises should promote awareness among customers & provide accurate information regarding emissions, biodiversity and more.
    • Enterprises should provide accurate information that allows consumers to make informed decisions – including in relation to environmental attributes.
  • In the decision, the NCP found that ClientEarth had a legitimate interest in the complaint, and that it was material and substantiated.

Along with its decision to withdraw its ad campaign, BP announced in February that it would “redirect resources to active advocacy policies.” In a question at BP’s 2020 AGM, ClientEarth stressed that this needs to be done transparently – including making public how much BP will spend on advocacy and showing it is serious about aligning its lobbying activities with the Paris Agreement.

About us:

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.

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