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The Red Tractor scheme under attack from environmental charity, River Action

Greenwashing in the agricultural sector gets real

Lawyers acting for River Action, have put out a press release on 17 April 2023 saying they have filed three complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority about the Red Tractor’s advertising. This follows an article in the Times on 3 April 2023 quoting data from a 2020 Environment Agency report in which the Times suggests that Red Tractor farms are more likely to pollute the environment than other farms.

Why this matters

Founded in 2000, the Red Tractor scheme promotes itself as a world-leading food chain assurance scheme that underpins the high standards of British food & drink“. The Assured Food Standard company states that its scheme offers the Red Tractor logo which is “the flagship logo of British food and farming, providing assurance at every stage of the production process, from farm to pack“.

If River Action’s challenge succeeds, the ASA’s usual sanction means that the use of the Red Tractor logo could be severely curtailed.


River Action’s complaint is based on the fact that it says there is evidence that many Red Tractor-assured farms do not meet the environmental standard promoted by the scheme. River Action relies on the same Environment Agency report which it says found that assured farms were responsible for agricultural pollution. River Action’s lawyers’ press release quotes sections of the Agency’s report and states that assured “farms were responsible for 62% of category 1 and 2 incidents and 56% of category 3 incidents. Significantly, the Report concluded that RT farms were less compliant (26%) with [Environment Agency] inspections compared to non-RT farms (19%)“.

The press release goes on to say that this “conclusion is consistent with those of a previous [Environment Agency] report of a case study carried out by the [Environment Agency] between 2016 and 2022 in North Devon. The [Environment Agency] found that of 101 farms visited, 87% were non-compliant with environmental regulations despite all being Red Tractor members“.

The ASA has jurisdiction to rule on all advertising in the UK including traditional newspaper and television adverts as well as social media and the content on companies’ own websites. Accordingly, the complaints to the ASA are based on the fact that River Action believes that the claims on Red Tractor’s website, YouTube channel and its most recent TV advert are misleading to consumers. If the ASA upholds the complaints its decision will mean that Red Tractors’ claims cannot be repeated in their current form.

What next

Given Red Tractor’s strong rebuttal on its website of the Times article which it says is “inaccurate, misleading and a disservice to Red Tractor dairy farmers” we can expect a strong defence of the River Action ASA complaints. Red Tractor says that the data in the Environment Agency’s report “actually supports the opposite conclusion” to the one drawn by the Times’ article. Given that River Action’s ASA complaints also rely on the Environment Agency’s report, we can expect Red Tractor to argue that its claims are valid and that use of the logo is appropriate in all circumstances as promoting the higher standards which are at the heart of the Red Tractor scheme’s aims.

We expect the ASA to rule on this in summer 2023 and it will no doubt be a highly anticipated decision.


This could be a big moment for the agricultural sector and for environmental claims more generally. If the ASA rules that Red Tractor’s claims cannot be substantiated and that the use of the Red Tractor logo is inappropriate given that the producers are not adhering to the standards the Red Tractor logo presents then this could flow all the way up the supply chain.

It is this “house of cards” which is the reason why this complaint to the ASA has wider significance. Even though all advertisers are supposed to hold relevant and contemporaneous substantiation for all the advertising claims they make, many companies rely on information from suppliers below them in the supply chain. Therefore, if River Action’s complaints are upheld and the ASA rules against Red Tractor, supermarkets and other retailers could start to question whether they should be promoting the Red Tractor logo in their advertising for fear of an accusation that they are “greenwashing”.

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