Innocent’s pulled TV ad: What we can learn about greenwashing?

16 March 2022 4 min. read

For some, it might seem particularly challenging that Innocent Drinks faced a very public case of what looked like ‘greenwashing’ after the UK’s advertising watchdog banned one of its adverts.

Despite’s the brands wholesome, ‘warm and fuzzy’ heritage and its admirable environmental strides – on its website it talks at length about its carbon reduction targets, its soon-to-be-built carbon neutral factory and its B-Corp status – at the end of February its adverts were pulled by the Advertising Standards Authority because it had suggested exaggerated environmental claims in relation to buying its smoothies.

What can we learn from this? How could Innocent have avoided, and then managed, this negative PR and should it put brands off shouting about their environment credentials to avoid a potential public lynching?

Innocent’s pulled TV ad: What we can learn about greenwashing?

James Edney, Business Development Director at Given, a London-based agency for purpose-driven brands, shares his view on the matter.

Is the Coca-Cola association to blame?

Edney: “Innocent was the poster child for British entrepreneurship with a brand which seemed to combine making money with having a heart – whether through knitting little bobble hats to go on top of its bottles to support Age UK or starting its innocent foundation to tackle hunger around the world.”

“Was the criticism in part due to the brand’s current ownership by the planet’s biggest plastic polluter? Certainly, the criticism for the cancelled advert centred on the brand’s part in perpetuating single-use plastics. The question is, did the Coca-Cola association amplify this? Unpicking a brand/ parent brand dynamic is tricky, it depends on how much consumers know about each, but I’m sure Innocent suffered a bit more because of its partnership with Coca-Cola and their huge role in plastic generation.”

“In an ideal world, the brands should be treated separately, but I don’t think this is realistic to expect once people know there is a link. Innocent has a parent brand with heavy negative associations, and because of this they probably should have been more prudent.”

What things did Innocent not do, which brands must do?

Edney: “To a certain extent, Innocent may have been relying on its track record and the legacy of its brand, expecting a certain level of public support for its marketing approach and belief in its brand image. But this news showed that, regardless of how consumers have viewed you in the past, you need to give context to environmental (or social impact) claims and expect a higher level of scrutiny than might have been the case in the past.”

“Engagement is a big part of this, not consulting on every piece of marketing, but making sure there is clear and consistent engagement between sustainability functions and marketing ones. The bolder the claim you are making, the stronger the internal scrutiny needs to be. This is the balance between great storytelling and compelling marketing with the rigour that underpins sustainability.”

Did Innocent manage their accusation of ‘greenwashing’ well?

Edney: “In the ruling, Innocent responded by saying it was a B Corp, it had committed to being carbon neutral by 2030, and had opened a carbon-neutral factory that ran on renewable energy. These are all valid points, but Innocent was ducking the biggest reason its advert was deemed to be misleading – and that is around its reliance on single use plastics.”

“Being a B Corp and its other commitments don’t really have a bearing on the claims suggested by the ad. Yes, Innocent have lots of positives, but it would have been better to engage in dialogue that spoke directly to the greenwashing – acknowledging the mistake but pointing to positives elsewhere. Innocent’s reputation might afford them a buffer, so I don’t think this storm is going to do massive damage to the brand in the long run, but it will have suffered in the short term.”

“What matters though is how they respond going forward – is their response simply defensive or positive and constructive? How are they planning to address the fact that their business currently relies on single use plastic?”

Should Innocent’s experience put other brands off?

Edney: “The risk of brands greenwashing will only increase as more and more brands understand the positive connection between purpose and profit. But on the other hand, more eyes will be watching for it – whether NGOs or consumers. This may result in brands feeling fearful about going out with any environmental messaging at all.”

“But brands should only feel worried if they are uncertain of the accuracy of the claim they want to make, or haven’t properly engaged external stakeholders on their sustainability plans. If brands can back up their claims confidently, and have ways to engage the audience they are trying to reach, before they communicate to the media, there is no reason to be put off or to feel nervous.”