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Law students demonstrate misleading Shell advertising

27 August 2021
Shell advertisements making “carbon neutral” claims are misleading – this is the ruling by the Advertising Code Committee in response to the complaint submitted by nine law students.

Nine law students from the International Business Law, Climate Change and Corporations master’s programme conducted research at the VU Climate and Sustainability Law Clinic into Shell’s advertisements making “carbon neutral” claims. The investigation found that the advertisements are misleading. The nine law students therefore submitted a complaint to the Advertising Code Committee. Supported by Reclame Fossielvrij (advertising fossil-free) and Greenpeace, the students objected to the advertisements in which Shell promises its customers that the company will fully compensate carbon emissions from filling their tank with forest conservation and tree planting, by paying an extra 1 cent per litre.

The Advertising Code Committee agrees with the students’ argument that Shell’s compensation measures will never undo the environmental damage caused by the carbon emissions. After all, the damage that CO2 does to the climate is certain, while the oil and gas multinational can never guarantee how much and for how long forest conservation and planted trees capture CO2 from the air. The Advertising Code Committee notes the fact that Shell makes an absolute environmental claim without being able to substantiate that claim through verifiable and independent sources. “Companies cannot scientifically substantiate claims about carbon offsets,” says Clemens Kaupa, assistant professor of climate law at VU Amsterdam and leader of the Law Clinic. “In light of this ruling, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to continue promoting such claims.”

The Advertising Code Committee therefore determined that Shell must stop advertising using the term “carbon neutral”. The law students who submitted the complaint last April are pleased. “We’re very happy with this ruling. It confirms how misleading claims about carbon neutrality often are, despite being thrown around all the time these days,” says Xander de Vries on behalf of the students.