✏️ Jordan Bowen

At a time when issues of global warming are receiving peak attention in the public eye, the greenwashing operations by large private firms have never been so pivotal. It should not be down to activists such as Greta Thunberg to re-ignite our interest in environmental affairs, to review our perspective on whether businesses operate ‘cleanly’. 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a form of intentional deception by businesses in an attempt to portray themselves as being more environmentally friendly. Achieved through the power of marketing and advocacy, large companies can effectively do so, without drawing the attention of their damaging work to the national spotlight. However, for large businesses operating in ‘dirty’ industries, traditionally involved in the combustion of fossil fuels, they must work even harder so that the public can’t see through to the reality of their practices.

One of Shell’s most prominent social marketing campaigns of recent years was the #Makethefuture campaign launched by a music collaboration by Jennifer Hudson, Pixie Lott, Yemi Alade, Luan Santana and Monali Thakur. 

image via Unsplash

The video to the song “On Top Of The World” involves the demonstration of several new technologies Shell were developing as ways of reducing carbon emissions. Most of these technologies were designed for the lesser developed countries strictly in a domestic setting. Shell followed the video up with live concerts, podcasts, a short YouTube series with select celebrities all to present the multinational corporation as being ‘aware’ of the climate crisis and addressing it in a progressive manner with the extensive resources at its disposal. 

Although it can never ultimately be worked out how well-intentioned this campaign was, it can be recognised as a direct effort to detract from the fact that Shell is one of the largest polluters in the world, producing 31.95bn tonnes of carbon dioxide since 1965. It is not just the extent to which they contribute to carbon emissions- which is an adverse consequence of their operations- but also the ecological damage through oil spills and their failure to clean them up

What makes this a blatant case of greenwashing is how the promotion of these new innovations target lesser developed countries and how it attributes a large portion of the blame for rising carbon emissions to domestic use of their services in these poorer nations. By doing so, Shell avoids blaming developed western societies which would constitute the majority of Shell’s demand. All of this is reinforced through the medium in which the campaign is launched. By incorporating celebrities from different backgrounds with diverse fanbases, it very carefully targets the ‘millennial’ demographic. 

Unsurprisingly this campaign faced considerable opposition from environmental groups Amnesty International and Greenpeace. They condemned Shell’s efforts at rebranding by launching their own parody posters; an excellent example of the advocacy groups holding big business to account and making sure that consumers do not get distracted by social marketing schemes.

How can we spot when businesses are greenwashing?

In an age of growing transparency in business, there’s a number of things we as consumers can do to identify greenwashing attempts. 

One way is to educate yourself on what these terms can mean. For instance the term “sustainable packaging”, does this then mean that the product itself uses harmful chemicals? If you are buying a product which you suspect to use unethical practices, use your suspicions to ask yourself, “even if this product is sustainably made, where was it made and what sort of workers rights or legislation is there to protect workers?”. 

Similarly familiarise yourself with the various seals placed on packaging or advertising. The increased regulation on how businesses market themselves has placed stronger emphasis on this within recent years, making it easier for consumers to identify. 

The simplest method of all is to just read the packaging and small print and read what ingredients were used or what materials went into the packaging.  This most relevant example is beauty products or fragrances who claim to be “all natural”. The ingredients may be all natural, however they may not all be environmentally friendly, such as palm oil, which is a valuable and finite resource which requires great efforts to cultivate. 

check the packaging on products before buying them (image via Unsplash)

Why is this so important?

Businesses must be aware that they are accountable for the way in which they operate and that consumers do have the intelligence and power to hold them to as much. With competition so crowded these days in nearly all markets, businesses cannot afford to lose customers. This is especially the case when considering the poorly coordinated  marketing was an expense in an effort to gain or reinforce popularity.

 Also, if we as consumers are not proactive in our role to protect the environment, then businesses will continue to damage crucial eco-systems. Familiarising yourself with greenwashing and what it looks like can help you make small but important decisions to buy more ethically. 

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Last Update: July 17, 2020