Imagine for a moment that you are the CEO of a company with a large carbon footprint. Everywhere you turn, there’s someone reminding you that your business needs to cut its planet-wrecking emissions, and fast. Even your kids are giving you an earful.
By now, you have realised that sooner or later you are going to have to bite the bullet – but you also know that cutting your firm’s emissions is going to be hard work. It will require some boardroom arm-wrestling, major investments, and a complete overhaul of your business model.
But what if there was an easy way out? What if, for instance, you could pay some clever advertising people to come up with a new marketing campaign that makes it look like you’re tackling your carbon problem when you’re not? That will placate the critics, buy you time and save you some money, at least in the short term.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a PR tactic that's used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact.
This is, in a nutshell, what greenwashing is and why it’s now everywhere. Whether you are filling up at the pump, booking a flight or simply browsing supermarket shelves, you are being targeted by marketing campaigns trying to persuade you that everything is fine. Your flight to Crete? That’s carbon-neutral. The petrol in your car? That’s carbon-neutral too. What about this slice of bacon over here? That’ll be net-zero too, soon enough.
The last few years may well go down in history as the golden age of greenwashing. Granted, these kinds of shenanigans are as old as advertising itself. But greenwash as the deliberate attempt to cover up or distract from the damage a company is doing to the environment is a more recent phenomenon.
The term “greenwashing” itself seems to have first appeared back in the 1980s, at a time of major environmental disasters and climate science going mainstream. But it’s not until very recently that this practice has truly taken off. Growing public concerns about the state of nature and the climate have meant much more scrutiny on the environmental impacts of companies. And when boardrooms are faced with a choice between radically transforming the way they do business or just throwing some money at a new PR campaign, the latter option can be tempting.
For the oil industry in particular, something else has changed. After decades of working behind the scenes to undermine climate science, fossil fuel companies have realised being caught doing it is not a good look. Having put down the climate denial playbook, many oil and gas firms have reached for the greenwash spray gun.
“Having put down the climate denial playbook, many oil and gas firms have reached for the greenwash spray gun. But the aim is pretty much the same: delay or avoid action to avert catastrophic climate change.”
How worried should we be then about this trend? The aim of both greenwashing and climate denial is pretty much the same: delay or avoid the action we so badly need to avoid catastrophic climate change. But greenwashing also comes with an additional twist: it creates the false perception that planet-critical problems are being tackled, even solved, when they are not. Under this mass hypnosis, public pressure on polluting companies evaporates and the tough decisions needed to cut carbon emissions are kicked into the long grass. Greenwashing is our Pied Piper to climate doom. So yes, we should worry about it.
Since the best antidote to any deception is exposing it, here are some of the latest and most egregious examples of greenwashing from the corporate world.
Driven to distraction
In a Shell’s radio ad from last year, a young girl tells her mother: “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with ‘b’”. The ad was marketing the latest feature of the firm’s loyalty programme, Shell GO+, which allows its members to “drive carbon-neutral”. What the girl spied turned out to be a banana tree, but what many listeners smelled was something else beginning with “b”. After a raft of complaints, the UK’s advertising watchdog shut down the radio ad for being misleading.
That’s because this supposedly climate-friendly driving has nothing to do with electric cars or some miracle zero-carbon juice gushing from Shell’s pumps. No, the loyal Shell drivers are still burning the same old diesel and petrol and emitting the same old planet-heating carbon. What makes their drive “carbon-neutral” then? The oil giant claims they will offset their emissions for them.
Offsetting has become the most popular and sophisticated form of greenwash around. The idea is deceptively simple: instead of cutting your own carbon emissions, you pay someone else to cut theirs or somehow capture yours. In theory, this mechanism could work since it doesn’t matter where in the world the carbon is emitted as long as the same quantity is taken out of the atmosphere somewhere else. In practice, though, offsetting is riddled with flaws.
“Offsetting has become the most popular and sophisticated form of greenwash around. It could work in theory, but in practice, it's riddled with flaws.”
In Shell’s case, the oil giant claims to be cancelling out emissions from its fuel by funding projects that are trying to stop deforestation in places like the Amazon. If that seems a bit of a logical leap, it’s because it is. The main problem is that the impacts of the planet-heating emissions from Shell customers’ exhaust are certain, whereas the impacts of the offsetting schemes supposed to mop up them are anything but.
Any scheme claiming to be generating carbon savings by protecting a forest has an awful lot to prove. It needs to show that those savings wouldn’t happen anyway even if the scheme didn’t exist; that deforestation has not simply been pushed over into a nearby area; and that the project will last long enough for the carbon to be reabsorbed.
Demonstrating that a project fulfills all of these criteria ranges from extremely difficult to impossible. Some of these projects are based in national parks, where deforestation is illegal anyway. Most of them have a lifespan of just a couple of decades when trees may take a whole century to soak up the emissions they are supposed to offset. And how do you show that this or that bit of forest would have been lost if the scheme wasn’t there? Counterfactuals like this are, by their very nature, incredibly hard to prove, but many offsetting schemes take them completely for granted.
Carbon offsetting schemes of this kind are much more useful for the big polluters than for the planet. So don’t let Shell take you for a “carbon-neutral” ride – there’s nothing carbon-neutral about it.
Snake oil salesmen
It’s like a fairy tale. The camera glides from a snow-covered forest into a cosy hole under a gnarly old tree where a bear is sleeping soundly. The narrator’s voice informs us that while the creature hibernates peacefully, oil giant Chevron is drilling quietly underneath the den. By the time the bear is out frolicking in the spring meadows with her cubs, Chevron has tiptoed away, not before restoring the landscape to its pristine beauty.
Aired at a time of growing anxiety about the state of the planet, this Chevron TV ad from the 1980s is a classic of the genre. It paints a picture of oil drilling that’s the exact opposite of the polluting, mechanised, landscape-altering reality of fossil fuel extraction. Just a few years later, this sanitised version of the industry was wiped clean from public memory by the horrific images of oil-soaked wildlife flailing in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Partly thanks to this rough reality check, over the following decades this brand of in-your-face greenwash gave way to something more subtle. At the turn of the millennium, BP launched its famous advertising campaign rebranding itself “Beyond Petroleum”, adopting the yellow-green sunflower logo and promising big investment in renewable energy. How did that pan out? Almost two decades later, in 2018, only 3 percent of BP’s investments was going into clean energy and, by then, the many-petalled sunflower was drenched in the four million barrels of oil spilt in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Just as these more sophisticated greenwashing tactics now seem to have run their course, the oil industry is preparing to unleash their latest marketing wheeze. And this one, too, is fully powered by offsetting.
In the first few months of 2021, the oil industry introduced the world to a new wonder: carbon-neutral oil and gas. In January, US oil firm Occidental Petroleum announced the delivery of two million barrels of “carbon-neutral oil” to a company in India. According to the company, this was the first major oil shipment for which greenhouse gas emissions from the entire lifecycle of the fuel had been offset.
In March, it was Shell’s turn to boast of having taken delivery of the first “carbon-neutral Liquefied Natural Gas cargo” in Europe. And just a few days ago, Swedish oil company Lundin Energy was awarded a “CarbonZero certification” or the “carbon-neutral sale” of 600,000 barrels of fossil fuel from one of their wells. The certifier, Intertek, explains that their new CarbonZero” label is partly based on ‘certification of traceable high-quality carbon capture or reduction investments’, which is, once again, a type of offsetting.
If anyone thought these were just whimsical attempts to test the markets’ gullibility, Lundin’s CEO Nick Walker has made it very clear that his company’s aim is that of “building a market for low and net-zero carbon produced oil and gas”. This market sounds like a greenwasher’s dream.
Flights of fancy?
On the 19th of November 2019, easyJet made history… at least according to their own ad published in the London Metro the following day. As it soared into the autumn sky, flight EJU5841 became the first one by the low-cost airline to have all emissions from its fuel offset. From then on, the easyJet site informs us, all their flights have been “carbon-neutral”.
EasyJet is not alone in offering climate-friendly flights to its customers. In fact, this has become quite the trend among airlines. For a small fee, British Airways gives passengers the opportunity to offset their emissions and thus “fly carbon-neutral” while Deltaclaims to be set to become the “first carbon-neutral airline globally”.
The slogan is catching on. But if you’re wondering what kind of major technological breakthrough lies behind it, you’re looking in the wrong place. The leap in innovation is not to be found in the planes themselves, but in the PR department. These companies’ airplanes still burn tonnes and tonnes of the usual fossil fuels. What they claim to be doing is offsetting the emissions from those flights by funding a bunch of forest protection schemes around the world.
It’s exactly the same trick behind Shell’s “drive carbon-neutral” slogan, and it comes with the same problems and then some. A recent investigation by Unearthed and the Guardian has found no evidence that the offsetting schemes used to justify these eye-catching claims have produced enough carbon savings to back them up. A land-use expert who has audited these kinds of schemes for years has warned that “there is room for projects to generate credits that have no impact on the climate whatsoever”. Another expert has called these carbon credits ‘phantom credits’.
And it gets even more farcical. An easyJet-backed offsetting project in the Amazon turns out to be run by two logging firms that have cut down tree species declared “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List. Yes, easyJet is essentially paying logging firms to exercise some self-restraint as they wield their chainsaws through the rainforest.
It’s not surprising that the aviation industry should be relying so heavily on greenwashing. This is a sector with a massive climate problem and no off-the-peg solutions other than scaling itself down. Pumping one billion tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere every year, air travel and freight accounts for 2.5 percent of global emissions. Biofuels might make a dent in the problem, though they come with serious issues of their own, but large-scale electric planes are a distant prospect. This makes airlines the perfect customers for the greenwashing industry.
To be fair to easyJet, their history-defining ad does point out that “offsetting isn’t perfect”. It’s a major understatement, but better than nothing. It does, however, beg a fundamental question: if easyJet is aware of just how imperfect offsetting is, why is it still making overblown claims about its “carbon-neutral flights”? Instead of spending millions on offsetting and slick marketing campaigns, easyJet and other airlines should concentrate their efforts on technological development and innovation. And while flying remains one of the most high-carbon forms of transport, governments should manage demand fairly through initiatives such as a frequent flyer levy.
If big polluters like oil giants and airlines can have their “carbon-neutral” petrol and flights, what about that other major source of planet-heating emissions, the meat industry? Why can’t they have their net-zero bacon?
Lo and behold, a recent full-page ad in the New York Times promises just that. “Bacon, chicken wings and steak with net-zero emissions. It’s possible,” goes the upbeat slogan. Given that livestock farming makes up nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, this is a rather bold statement.
Unfortunately, the rest of the ad is scant on details as to how the net-zero meat of the future will be produced. Does this net-zero claim also involve the heavy use of ever more popular carbon offsetting? Again, the ad doesn’t say.
But the real surprise comes at the very bottom of the page where responsibility for these pronouncements is claimed by none other than JBS, the world’s largest meat producer. Multiple investigations spanning many years have linked the Brazilian meat giant to farms involved in destroying the Amazon rainforest – hardly a net-zero activity.
The 2009 Greenpeace International report Slaughtering the Amazon exposed how JBS and other big meat firms were linked to hundreds of ranches operating in the Amazon, including some associated with recent and illegal deforestation. Faced with a global outrage, JBS signed up to various industry agreements and promised to tackle deforestation in its supply chain. But a follow-up Greenpeace report from last year shows that, more than a decade later, the company is still at it.
So what about JBS’s carbon emissions? You won’t find that in the full-page ad – the company is rather coy about this detail. According to Reuters, JBS said in 2019 that its own operations produce an estimated 4.6m tonnes of carbon emissions from industrial facilities and 1.6m tonnes from energy use. But this is peanuts compared to the emissions from its supply chain – the farms where animals are reared and feed is produced – which according to its CEO, make up 90% of JBS’s carbon footprints.
Do the maths and it looks like JBS may be a few tens of millions of carbon tonnes short of net zero. Sorry, but your carbon-neutral fry-up will have to wait.
What you can do
Greenwash is raining all around us, as if sprayed by an out-of-control garden sprinkler. Is there anything we can do to stop it?
Greenwashing works best when people don’t notice it, or at least keep quiet about it. As soon as enough voices start calling it out, the jig is up. It’s telling that one of Bernard Looney’s first acts after taking over as BP boss was to axe their latest advertising campaign, which had been widely criticised as greenwash. If you want to persuade the public that your company is serious about change, greenwash is the last thing you should do.
If you’re tired of hearing nonsense about carbon-neutral flying or zero-carbon oil, you can write to the companies and challenge them on social media. The more people talk about it, the more likely it is that the veneer of greenwash will start peeling off. There have been some great investigations lately – from ProPublica, Unearthed and Bloomberg among others – exposing the many absurdities at the heart of offsetting schemes. You could do worse than share them with people you know.
And what about the law? Is greenwashing legal? There’s no specific law banning greenwashing in the UK, but there are several legal ways of challenging it. Before BP’s new boss axed their dodgy ad campaign, environmental lawyers at ClientEarth had already filed an official complaints procedure against the oil giant under the guidelines of the OECD, an international set of rules governing corporate conduct. Advertising watchdogs have the power to remove ads if they deem them to be misleading. And consumer law also offers some redress to consumers who feel they have been sold something based on misleading claims.
But when it comes to offsetting-based greenwash in particular, it’s our government that holds the power to stop polluters bamboozling the public. Except that the signals so far from Downing Street don’t bode well. Boris Johnson’s top financial adviser for COP26 – the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney – also happens to be leading an industry task force aiming to turn offsetting into a $100bn global market. And the Chancellor has backed the idea of putting London right at the centre of it.
As the host of a crucial climate summit, the UK government cannot allow big polluters to use offsetting as an alibi to carry on fuelling the climate emergency while pretending that they’re tackling the problem. If the UK government wants to be a real climate leader and make sure the Glasgow summit is a success, we need much more stringent rules to limit how offsetting can be used and what claims companies can base on it.
Airlines and oil companies love talking about carbon offsetting. But to be serious about tackling climate change, they need to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place.