The term Greenwash is coming up more and more these days. But what does it mean?
Allow us to provide 10 examples as we enter The Great Greenwash in the hope that it sheds some light on the meaning of this one.
- Hello, I’m paper bottle: When the South Korean cosmetic brand – Innisfree – started marketing it’s ‘eco-friendly’ packaging recently, the internet went crazy calling out that this was actually a plastic bottle wrapped inside recycled paper. A local Korean millennial apparently felt betrayed when finding out that their eco-purchase was in fact contributing to the current global plastics crisis and this company was hitting the news for all the wrong reasons. The unnamed customer even went as far as filing an official complaint to the local consumer regulator claiming the company was greenwashing. The company thought it was onto something with its label in big bold letters saying: Hello, I’m paper bottle. Yes, they even got the grammar wrong. After the internet broke under the humour (and surprise) at the stupidity of this one, the company went public, nursing their pride and admitting that the packaging was misleading and confusing.
- Hygiene at the UN Climate Conference: In early April it was reported that a partnership had formed between UN Climate and Reckitt, a household brand responsible for everything from Dettol to Strepsils. Reckitt will be providing the hygiene protocols at the COP 26 climate conference in November. No doubt, a huge win for a company to secure a contract of that nature because let’s face it these climate conferences attract a lot of people, and in the midst of a pandemic, hygiene takes priority. Reckitt claims to do a lot of great stuff for the environment, but recent reports show that their products have a huge dependence on unsustainable palm oil coming from the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. The irony here is that this upcoming climate conference is supposed to be ‘The Nature COP’. Climate negotiations have attempted to address the question around deforestation for many years and in Glasgow in November, negotiators might be (green)washing their hands with products that are contributing to the very deforestation that they are seeking to prevent. Now, that would be unfortunate and embarrassing.
- Shell Oil and their Nature-Based Solutions (NBS): Shell have been both praised and criticised for their investment into nature-based solutions and ‘investing in nature’ in order to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. Now, apart from the fact that offsetting your way to net zero isn’t actually reducing emissions, and a Dutch Court has just found that this target is insufficient, these types of pledges are basically part of the long ongoing effort of the fossil fuel industry to influence the narrative concerning climate change, mostly through the provision of junk science, false information and very deliberate effort to prevent climate action. Shell is putting their hand in their pocket to the tune of $30 million to invest in nature, which, when compared against their expected $30 – $32bn of planned investments into oil exploration between now and 2025, it’s all a bit hard to take seriously.
- Maisie Williams and the H&M partnership: When Arya Stark from Game of Thrones aka Maisie Williams) entered into a partnership with these fast fashion Swedes, with more than 5000 stores around the world, she probably wasn’t expecting the greenwash backlash she received. In fairness to Maisie, she does put the focus on recycling and the sustainability initiatives undertaken by H&M in her efforts to ‘change the future of fashion’. Of course, this one is about the future, because if we look at the past of H&M (the stuff they have actually done) we see a business promoting throwaway consumption on a global scale. It was reported in the New York Times in 2019 that H&M had around US$4bn in unsold clothes to throw away and the Clean Clothes Campaign are still trying to get them to stop violating worker’s rights. H&M have announced that they will invest US$100m in their ‘planet positive fashion’ initiative through their ‘non-profit’ H&M Foundation on new tech. We haven’t heard much from Maisie since all this happened. Perhaps she is hiding out somewhere, west of Westeros.
- Balancing the books with good and bad investments: fossil fuel projects simply can’t go ahead without financial support from investors – mostly banks – and let’s face it, many investment portfolios include high polluting investments. Earlier this year, former Bank of England big shot, and UN Climate Finance envoy Mark Carney claimed that his investment firm – Brookfield’s – portfolio was net zero because of an “ enormous renewables business and all of the avoided emissions that come with that,” which apparently balanced things out with the billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel projects. Sorry Mark, but you can’t be causing environmental destruction on one hand and balance it out with some nice green feel-good stuff. The statement was very quickly called out as greenwash, and not an acceptable definition of ‘net zero’ and it was only a matter of hours before Carney was on Twitter stating that ‘avoided emissions’ don’t count towards ‘net zero’. An analysis by world leading environmental organisations has also found that a lot of the big banks are doing the same thing. Claiming to be ‘going green’ on the one hand and ramping up investments in fossil fuels on the other. Creative accounting takes on a new meaning here.
- Total and their efforts to achieve zero: The French oil giant is another one of the fossil fuel companies seeking to use nature to ‘green up’ their image. In 2019 Total put in place their Total Nature-Based Solutions Unit, with a budget of $100 million to focus on carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions. Their plan, like Shell’s, is to offset some of their ongoing emissions through nature whilst also exploring technologies such as carbon capture and storage to claim emissions reductions. Frankly, industry and experts have been trying to make these technologies affordable and scalable for more than a decade, in order to avoid the inevitable reduction in fossil fuel production. We all know by now that phasing out fossil fuels is the only true way to address the climate crisis and it’s worth keeping in mind that these green washing efforts on the part of the fossil fuel industry through ecosystem restoration and investing in tech are basically about enabling them to continue business as usual. Perhaps the French should try out their new laws against greenwashing on this one.
- The gas industry: gas has long been touted as a ‘bridging fuel’ as the world transitions from fossil fuels to renewables. These claims have been consistently disputed now for more than a decade, yet we still see huge emphasis on gas, probably because of the level of influence that the gas industry has over politicians in some countries. Take Australia for example. They even love gas so much, they tried to steal it from poor and vulnerable climate impacted neighbours Timor Leste in the 80s. Australia are now obsessed with what they call a ‘gas-fired recovery’. Whilst gas is argued as being less emissive than coal, recent research has shown that the methane emissions are heavily polluting and contribute to climate change raising doubts as to the effectiveness of gas as a climate solution. Australia seems to consistently miss the opportunity to become a renewable energy powerhouse out of continued efforts of the local politicians to look after their mates in the fossil fuel sector. Sorry, but those of us here at The RAG feel strongly that prioritising gasified economies over renewables is in fact, greenwash.
- Carbon Offsets from forests and ecosystems: For decades we have been hearing about the potential for a forest carbon market to come into being and save the world through market-based carbon trading solutions. And for decades it hasn’t happened. This is because experts have been unable to come up with a fool-proof-system that guarantees that the carbon reductions will be permanent, and they can’t seem to resolve complexities around things like governance, transparency, carbon accounting and protection of human rights. Even to this day, UN climate negotiators and finance experts continue to argue about these issues without resolution. Offsets are a critical element to the ‘net zero’ approach, where the ‘net’ is basically the ‘offset’. In other words, if you can match the emissions you create with carbon credits, then magically you become carbon neutral. This is a complex issue, and the devil is very much in the detail, but the bottom line is that an offset is not an emissions reduction, net zero is not real zero, and the carbon budget doesn’t have the space to allow for an all-out open market and commodification of nature to allow business as usual emissions. We all need to reduce emissions, and in our humble opinion, forest offsetting is akin to greenwash.
- The bioenergy industry: It may be surprising to come to know that bioenergy isn’t all It’s cracked up to be when it comes to being a solution to the climate crisis. See, first of all, a lot of land is going to be needed if the world is to switch from coal to trees for energy because you need a shitload of trees to create the same amount of energy you get from coal. Basically, there’s limited land available, and in many countries, increased need for land comes at the expense of indigenous peoples, local communities and intact forest ecosystems, killing Orangutans and stuff like that. On top of the social and environmental impacts, the claim that all bioenergy is carbon neutral is one of the great climate fallacies. See, once the forests are cut down, the wood is processed, turned into ‘pellets’ and shipped all around the world. The emissions from all this are significant and get ignored in the shady carbon accounting systems. Seriously folks, it’s really not easy being green!
- Chevron: We saved the best for last, and yes, surprise surprise, it’s another oil producer. Climate litigation has been on the increase around the world and fossil fuel companies are becoming their own version of defenders, on the receiving end lawsuit after lawsuit. In April 2021 Earthworks, Global Witness and Greenpeace USA filed the first ever greenwashing complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission claiming that Chevron are misleading the public with their claims to be ‘climate friendly’ when their business operations overwhelmingly rely on climate polluting fossil fuels and disproportionately harm communities of colour. We can expect more of these claims in courts and commissions around the world building on work that has already been done against a number of companies in past years. These types of claims and complaints are surprisingly easy to do, and we encourage our readers to get onto it!
So, there’s our top ten Greenwash issues for 2021 as we see in this ‘Great Greenwash Swindle’.
It’s difficult to see how economies around the world, which are dependent on unsustainable resource extraction, can suddenly turn around and all of a sudden be sustainable and part of this so-called ‘green economy’.
It’s surprising to hear so many claims now from these companies, which a few years ago would be quite prepared to criminalise and demonise environmentalists. Now they think they are environmentalists.
But it’s not all bad. At least they’re trying!
Perhaps in the next few years, after all the lies, there will be some level of truth and accountability.
Our suggestion to you, is to approach the ‘green’ claims with scepticism. Do a bit of research and make your own mind up. There’s some good stuff coming online that’s worth supporting.
It’s just going to be harder and harder to find it through the thickening fog in shades of green being put up by companies now.