"Greenwashing" : the story of sustainable / environmental propaganda

Earlier this year, a study conducted by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business found out that “products marketed as sustainable are driving not only product but also total category/market growth” (1). As a matter of fact, for some time now, companies have become very aware that on average, people are shifting towards a more eco-friendly consumption pattern, which meant there was a marketing potential for corporations themselves. This is how “greenwashing” was born.

What is “greenwashing”?

Corpwatch defines greenwashing as “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image” (2). In other words, greenwashing is what happens when a company or an entire industry presents “evidence” to be environment-friendly to benefit from the global demand for a responsible change, when the reality is far more deceiving (3).

In practice, greenwashing can take many forms and it is useful to look at a research study from the safety science company UL, that identifies 7 “sins of greenwashing”: hidden trade-offs, lack of proof, vagueness, worshiping false labels, irrelevance, lesser of two evils or simply fibbing (4).

Let’s take the example of eco-labels, or “environmental certification seals”. Unlike mandatory labels warning for the dangers or on the conformity of a product, eco-labels are voluntary, they depend upon the company’s discretion. However, they are regulated by marketing principles. The US Federal Trade Commission for instance, has released “Green Guides” as early as in 1995, demanding that marketers “explain what the seal or certification is based on”, and that they “be specific” (5). Put differently, displaying a product as “green” is not sufficient, it needs to be specified if it is “biodegradable” for example, and to what extent it is. As a result, what often happens is that the responsibility falls into the hands of the consumers, who need to proactive in avoiding to be “greenwashed” (6). Although it is safe to assume that we all have experienced the casual frowning in the sight of “green” advertisement by Total or Coca-Cola, it is certain that most of consumers do not dispose of the tools to assess the accuracy of an environmental claim.

Is greenwashing a new concept?

It is not, although it has certainly exploded with the increasing attention given to climate change and sustainability. The concept first emerged in the early 1970s and was coined at the time as “eco-pornography” by the American environmental activist Jerry Mander when oil companies launched campaigns to counter claims that they were harming the planet (1). Since then, the popularity of environmental claims has skyrocketed, and more industries have joined the green team.

On a legal note, regulations often target “misleading practices” conducted by marketers. In a 2005 directive tackling unfair commercial practices, the European Commission prohibits a commercial practice that “contains false information and is therefore untruthful” or “is likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise” (7). Nevertheless, companies sometimes make factually correct eco-friendly affirmations about a certain product, which does not counter the fact that the corporation’s main business as a whole remains damaging to the environment.

In exploring case-studies of greenwashing, the irony and the hypocrisy of those marketing practices are only jumping to one’s attention.

New BP advertising campaign, 2019

Green oil

‘In the greenwashing game, profit comes before any reputation of honesty or respect for the true meaning of green’ affirms a journalist for Greenpeace in 2010 in an article recapping the company BP’s long history of glamourizing oil (8).

BP, originally the British Petroleum company, has a revenue close to US$300 billion annually that comes from extracting and supplying oil internationally (9). Every now and then, the company has suffered from reputation breakdowns, particularly in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon, one of BP’s offshore drilling rigs exploded and caught fire, killing 11 employees, causing the US’ largest oil spill and resulting in a fine of US$18 billions for the company (10).

What is rather interesting is how 10 years prior to this incident, BP had launched their new slogan, “Beyond Petroleum” and redesigned their logo into a soft yellow and green sun/flower shape. The main purpose of this high-profile campaign was to announce the recent investment of the organization in solar energy, aimed at restoring BP’s public image (11).

Yet, Greenpeace UK extracted data from BP’s documents, and found out that still 93% of the company’s investment were into oil and gas exploitation, with only 1.39% on solar energy (8). Here is a very good example of pushing green initiatives at the forefront, whilst omitting to specify that is represent an irrelevant portion of the company’s activity.

Right after BP on the list of the largest oil and gas companies, ExxonMobil has proved to be equally despicable in portraying its source of revenue as environmentally responsible. However, Exxon went further and interfered with public knowledge on climate science. The corporation states on its website: “Our approach is guided by an in-depth scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of our operations” (12). Well, if true, one could expect Exxon to cease all operations shortly. But the chosen strategy was rather a different one: funding climate change denial. As early as 1998, Exxon and their fossil fuels competitors have set up the “Global Climate Science Communications plan”, investing US$2 million into trying to convince the American public that “significant uncertainties exist in climate science” (13). In 2017, ExxonMobil’s vice president of public and government affairs admitted on air that the company had been funding climate change denier organizations (14). One can assume that the brand thought that the easiest way to pursue their activity in all consciousness, was to push back the moment when the public would find out that oil is inherently bad.

Eco-friendly plastic

The food industry is far from being left-out of the greenwashing phenomenon. Sitting comfortably on top of the list is the relentless soft-drinks supplier Coca-Cola.

For the second year in a row, Coca-Cola was ranked first corporate plastic polluter by the annual Greenpeace report on the matter (15). The document states that as plastic has seeped into rivers, oceans and landfills to a level of 320 million metric tons per year: “We cannot recycle our way out of this plastic pollution crisis.” Yet, the multinational giant attempts to convince its consumers that everything is in control, because Coca-Cola is recycling. In its 2018 Business and Sustainability Report, the company has repeated its goals of recycling 75% of the bottles and can introduced in the market by 2020, and 100% of them by 2030. Yet, in 2018 the score was 56% of recycled products, in decrease compared to 2017 and 2016 (16). Overall, the company sells approximately “3,500 environmentally-damaging single-use bottles every second” (17) and drops annually up to 12.7 million tons of plastic in the ocean (18). The figures speak for themselves.

In 2009, Coca-Coca launched a remarkable campaign for the new “PlantBottle” which, according to the company’s CEO James Quincey, is an innovation composed up to 30% of plant-based material (19). Yet, in 2013, the person responsible for ensuring that companies selling in Denmark are complying with the Danish Marketing Practices Act, accused Coca-Cola of greenwashing, as the product “contains a maximum of 15 percent of plant material – a percentage he said hardly justifies the designation ‘PlantBlottle’” (20).

Finally, James Quincey argued in a 2018 interview that “bottles and cans can benefit society if they’re designed properly and disposed responsibly” – referring to the benefits of small packaging against food spoilage and waste (19). Quincey is visibly dodging the bullet here, as it is an understatement to say that his company’s product are not disposed responsibly.

Harmless glyphosate

Last but not least, a company that is fearless enough to make positive environmental claims despite its toxic activity is the agrochemical giant Monsanto. If you wonder around Monsanto’s website, and in the “Environmental Sustainability” section in particular, one can read the company’s green commitments to “preserve biodiversity”, “protect species”, “promote sustainable landscapes”, “protect freshwater sources” and finally, “adapt to and mitigate climate change” (21). For anyone broadly unaware of Monsanto’s business, these expectations appear to be a remarkable model of corporate commitment. Let’s face the reality. The Monsanto Company is an American agrochemical corporation, known for developing a glyphosate-based herbicide (RoundUp) and for conducting genetic modifications of food crops (22). In other words, Monsanto makes an annual revenue of approximately US$15 billion a year out of spreading glyphosate across countries. Not so recently anymore, scientific research has established the impact of glyphosate on the environment and on human health as well: it contaminates soils in and around treated areas; it kills any plant that has not been genetically modified to resist it, therefore it affects the biodiversity by interfering in the food chain; when washed out by rain it pollutes river and groundwater and finally, it is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (there were over 40,000 lawsuits filed against Monsanto’s herbicides due to human health issues) (23).

In short, Monsanto does everything but preserving biodiversity, species, landscapes, freshwater sources or human health, and they are aware of it. This is why the company has become a massive lobbyist, and has for instance invested US$16.2 million into the Glyphosate Renewal Campaign, conducted between 2016 and 2017 by the lobby firm FleishmanHillard throughout the US and Europe (24). 

What Now?

Although proliferation of environmental claims appears to be great news at first sight, the lack of accuracy among those is absolutely alarming. As discussed here, the most profitable companies are being accused of greenwashing, regardless of the level of harm their industry is causing to the environment. Inevitably, independent organizations as well as institutions are attempting to hold these companies accountable for misleading campaign and practices, yet the amounts fined to giants like Coca-Cola or Monsanto are incredibly irrelevant in comparison to the benefits they make, hence not enough of an incentive to trigger change. In the meantime, consumers as individuals are once more required to do their part, avoiding to fall into green-marketing malpractices, even though they often lack the resources or the willingness to do so.


Coline Baralon

Coline is a third year student in a BA International Relations at King’s College London. Her personal interest of study are human rights law, Middle Eastern conflict and gender studies. She cares a lot about the environment and is a new member of the KCL Sustainability Committee.


References:

  1. “Sustainable Share Index: Research on IRI Purchasing Data (2013-2018)”, Randi Kronthal-Sacco and Tensie Whelan, NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, March 11, 2019.
  2. “Greenwash: Fact Sheet”, Corpwatch, 2001.
  3. “What is Greenwashing?”, Scientific American, 1 April 2009.
  4. “Sins of Greenwashing”, UL Research Study.
  5. “Does green label = green product? It should.”, US Federal Trade Commission, 2015.
  6. “’Green’ Product Labels: Can consumers trust them?”, Environmental Monitoring Solutions, 2019.
  7. “Misleading green claims”, Extract of the Guidance for the implementation/application of Directive 2005/29/EC on unfair commercial practices”, European Commission.
  8. “Recapping on BP’s long history of greenwashing”, Haley Walker, Greenpeace, May 21, 2010.
  9. “BP Revenue 2006-2019”, Macrotrends.
  10. “’Reckless’ BP faces $18bn fine for Deepwater oil spill”, NewScientist, 5 September 2014.
  11. “BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” Campaign Losing its Sheen”, Anne Landman, PRWatch, May 3, 2010.
  12. “Environmental Initiatives”, ExxonMobil website.
  13. “What happened to the lobbyists who tried to reshape the US view of climate change?”, Graham Readfearn, The Guardian, 27 February 2015.
  14. “Did ExxonMobil Just Admit It’s Still Funding Climate Science Deniers?” Elliott Negin, The Huffington Post, December 6, 2017.
  15. “Branded: in search of the world’s top corporate plastic polluters”, Volume 1, Justin Hofman/Greenpeace, 2018.
  16. “Coca-Cola Business and Sustainability Report 2018”, Coca-Cola Website.
  17. “Revealed: Coca-Cola sells 3,500 environmentally-damaging plastic bottles every second”, Tom Bawden, iNews, 9 April 2017.
  18. “The case against Coca-Cola: how the world’s biggest soft-drinks company is failing to address ocean plastic pollution”, Greenpeace Report, 6 April 2017.
  19. “Why a world without waste is possible”, James Quincey, Medium, January 19, 2018.
  20. “Coca-Cola Company (KO) busted for ‘Greenwashing’: PlantBottle marketing exaggerated environmental benefits, says consumer report.”, Christopher Zara, International Business Times, 09/03/2013.
  21. “Environmental Sustainability”, Monsanto Website.
  22. “Top 5 Companies with the Worst Environmental Impact”, Joel Anderson, Equities.com, 24 January 2012.
  23. “The environmental impact of glyphosate”, Friends of the Earth Europe, June 2013.
  24. “FleishmanHillard’s secret lobby campaign for Monsanto”, Corporate Europe Observatory, 19 September 2019.