Two months ago, the executive director of the International Energy Agency warned the world that we have six months to avoid a climate crisis. We have four months to go.
Whilst individual actions such as driving less frequently and eating less meat are useful steps to take in order to lower your personal carbon footprint, individual actions are too small to solve this crisis alone. It has been reported that just 100 companies are responsible for a mighty 71% of global emissions and until these organisations make a concerted effort to move away from using fossil fuels and become more sustainable, there will be no systemic change for good and the climate catastrophe will continue to worsen.
Although these large companies are the biggest polluters and contributors to global warming, it is no secret that in terms of consumers’ shopping habits that sustainability and eco-friendly products have been increasingly in popularity in the last few years and it is becoming more trendy for brands to project themselves as eco conscious and radical. Companies are recognising their consumers’ desire to purchase things that are better for the environment and make the consumer feel like they are making a difference. Companies use a marketing strategy known as greenwashing in order to manipulate the public into thinking that they are making a positive difference.
Greenwashing can be generally defined as the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company or its products are more environmentally sound than they actually are, and many companies have been found to exaggerate their claims in order to mislead their customers.
Greenwashing can be evidenced most clearly through the practices of fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest companies in terms of revenue. ExxonMobil extensively promote through commercials and advertising the fact that they have been taking steps towards alternative energy sources, and their website proudly claims that they have invested $10 billion in researching low-emission energy. Overlooked in ExxonMobil’s advertising is the fact that they have given $16 million to 43 organisations between 1998 and 2005 with the intention ‘to deceive the public about the reality of global warming’, according to research by The Union of Concerned Scientists. This highlights that the attitudes of these companies to global warming differs greatly in private compared to their public position on the issue. In a similar way to how the tobacco industry lobbied for years that smoking was safe and healthy, influential fossil fuel companies for years have been attempting to distort the facts in order to suit their ecologically damaging agenda.
ExxonMobil are not the only fossil fuel company guilty of greenwashing, with British Petroleum adopting the strategy in recent years too. BP has extensively damaged the environment through opening formerly protected areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling and through scandals such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, where an offshore oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and leaking 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing irreparable damage.
Despite this, BP has consistently projected itself as being environmentally conscious, most notably by using the tag line ‘Beyond Petroleum’ as part of its campaign to promote itself as green and responsible. Furthermore, BP recently ranked highest among energy companies for being green in the Green Brands Survey, with 49% of respondents feeling that BP had become greener in the past five years, suggesting that often advertising campaigns by companies hoping to convince the public can be effective and a profound effect on shaping the public’s perception about an issue.
The strategy of greenwashing is not limited to fossil fuel companies either. The high street clothing giant Primark recently tweeted that they were implementing a ‘wellness range which features products made from either organic cotton, recycled materials or sustainable materials’. Whilst some would point to this announcement and applaud Primark for seemingly taking a step in the right direction, the ‘wellbeing’ range at Primark is a small collection of items, designed in large part to project Primark as an increasingly ethical company, rather than be an example of them trying to implement systemic change in their operations. According to polling data, 66% of people are willing to spend more money on something that they believe is to be better for the environment. Hence, when companies like Primark use greenwashing marketing strategies, they are not only manipulating you to buy their product but are manipulating you to spend more money than you normally would because the customer thinks that their products are green.
Despite the ‘wellbeing’ range, most of Primark’s clothing is still cheap and disposable. These types of products are known as ‘fast fashion’ and are incredibly harmful to the biosphere. In Uzbekistan, cotton farming, the chief ingredient in the production of t-shirts and hoodies, has used up so much water from the Aral Sea that today the sea has shrunk to such an extent that it now has completely dried over in places and in places resembles an arid desert. Reporting done by Business Insider has also found that ‘the fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined’, showing that whilst companies like Primark want to project to the world that they are eco-conscious and sustainable, in my opinion that is simply a greenwashing exercise to skew the truth in order to distract from the fact that they are actually one of the biggest contributors to the global warming problem.
Ultimately, in order to avert the impending climate disaster, companies need to take greater responsibility for their actions and make a concerted effort to be more fundamentally sustainable in the future. Next time you see an advertisement from a brand that is proclaiming their eco-friendly credentials, stop and think. Do some research into the company to see whether they are honestly putting morality before profit or whether they are attempting yet another greenwashing marketing exercise. The fact that a company like Fiji Water can bottle up water in plastic bottles and fly them across the world to sell whilst 47% of native Fijians don’t have access to clean water highlights that this is an ethical problem not just a environmental one. Let’s hope that something is done sooner rather than later.