GENEVA — The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority has banned a batch of ads by Cotton Council International, trading as Cotton USA, for making misleading claims that U.S. cotton is produced in an environmentally “sustainable” manner.

This story first appeared in the March 19, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In its ruling, the ASA concluded that magazine and poster ads for Cotton USA, which state “soft, sensual and sustainable, it’s Cotton USA,” should “no longer appear in their current form.” The judgment by the industry oversight body was made following the filing of three consumer complaints that challenged the term “sustainable.”

In response to the complaints, the CCI said U.S. cotton production “met reasonable and generally accepted definitions of sustainability” and in its defense quoted definitions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress, as well as the United Nations.

The cotton industry umbrella group maintained that U.S. cotton was a “natural, renewable, biodegradable and sustainable fiber,” and underscored that the alternative was synthetic chemical fiber production that is non-renewable, as it uses petroleum as a base.

The council also argued that 99.9 percent of cotton production was conventionally produced and added that this method required less land, water and labor to be produced than organic cotton. Moreover, the CCI said there was a move toward the planting of genetically modified cotton and these varieties used less pesticide.

The authority decided that as “there was no universally agreed definition of the term ‘sustainable’ and there appeared to be a significant division of informed opinion as to whether cotton production in the U.S. could be described as ‘sustainable’ or not under various available definitions, the term ‘sustainable’ in the CCI ad was likely to be ambiguous and unclear to consumers.”

“We concluded that CCI had not justified the claim,” ASA said.

The ASA in its judgment noted, however, that “there was reputable scientific opinion that was concerned about the long-term impact of GM crops on biodiversity and the environment.” The ASA also concluded that there was “a division of informed and scientific opinion as to the relative water efficiency of cotton as a crop.”

The consumers, in their complaints to the ASA, said they believed cotton was a “pesticide- and insecticide-intensive crop” that could “seriously deplete” groundwater supplies in the High Plains region, where much of U.S. cotton is grown. One complainant, the ASA said, also challenged whether U.S. cotton subsidies had a negative impact on cotton farmers in poor developing nations, particularly in West Africa.

The ASA said the view by the ICC that it was not responsible for cotton farmers in poor nations “did not command universal acceptance in view of World Trade Organization rulings against U.S. cotton subsidies.”

Failure to comply with ASA judgments could result in an advertiser being brought before the U.K.’s Office of Fair Trading.