Royal Dutch Shell has been ordered to withdraw an advertisement in the Netherlands that sought to portray the oil giant as environmentally friendly, and British authorities said Thursday they had opened a formal investigation in the case.
The advertisement, part of a global campaign by Shell, shows smokestacks emitting flowers. It states that Shell recycles its emissions of carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming, by piping them into greenhouses. It also states that its emissions of sulfur dioxide, another pollutant, are used to make concrete.
"What they said in the advertisement was too strong," said Simone Wesseling, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Advertising Code Authority. "Shell suggests that all of these gases are recycled and that is not the case, so our committee found a misleading environmental claim."
Wesseling said the image of flowers was acceptable because readers would clearly identify it as imaginary.
Eurwen Thomas, a spokeswoman for Shell, said the company was studying the Dutch decision, which was issued on June 31 but publicized Thursday, and considering whether to bring an appeal.
She said the advertisement was not scheduled to run in any Dutch newspapers or magazines but continues to appear in magazines and newspapers in other European countries, including Britain.
Friends of the Earth, an environmental campaign group that brought the complaint, said that the decision was a significant victory at a time when consumers and regulators were struggling to work out which companies were genuinely adapting their businesses to a low-carbon economy.
"Instead of 'greenwashing' its environmental behavior, Shell should tackle its real problems," said Anne van Schaik, a campaign leader for Friends of the Earth Netherlands. "For instance, in Nigeria, gas flaring by Shell causes 60 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the carbon dioxide that is reused by Dutch farmers to grow flowers."
The British Advertising Standards Authority initially rejected the group's complaint at the end of May, but this week reopened the case after Friends of the Earth made further arguments, said Donna Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the British authority.
Friends of the Earth had made further arguments that required a formal investigation, she said.
Such investigations usually take six weeks, but the case involving Shell is complicated and could take longer, she said.
The Belgian authority also rejected the complaint, but officials at Friends of the Earth said they were campaigning to reopen that investigation, too.
Mitchell said the agency could soon issue stricter guidance to companies to discourage exaggerated claims.
"It's a vogue, but we expect advertisers to act as responsibly in this area as in any other area," she said, referring to "green" advertising.
Industry experts, however, foresee a long battle ahead.
"Many people in sustainability can't even agree on what constitutes an environmentally beneficial effect," said Mike Longhurst, a senior vice president in London for the advertising agency McCann Erickson.
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