Labels, Lies, and Greenwashing: How Corporations Are Undermining Our Efforts

Writing by Jamie Calder. Artwork by Berenika Murray.

‘100 fossil fuel producers and nearly 1 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.’. To put ‘1 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions’ into context, that accounts for 71% of global carbon emissions. (1) This is ludicrous. These statistics from The Carbon Majors report have sparked a lot of debate over who is most responsible for the climate crisis. Some argue that while these institutions are the ones drilling, mining and blasting their way towards a climate apocalypse, it is the individual who is responsibly because ‘it’s the consumer that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels’.(2) This creates a few questions. Firstly, what are the alternatives? In most situations legitimately green and locally sourced products are much more expensive which automatically rules out a significant number of products from a significant portion of the population. Secondly, if you’re able to afford them, but choose not to buy them, what’s swaying you back towards the usual ‘big brands’? This is where ‘greenwashing’ comes in.

In a report from Depop, it is reported that 75% of their Gen Z users aim to shop for second hand clothes, and 90% of their users have reported making changes to be ‘more sustainable in their daily lives’. (3) So, if people are making lifestyle choices and changing how and where they shop, aiming to be more sustainable, what’s holding us back? We’ve all seen the labels saying something is ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘ethically sourced’, or advertising campaigns claiming that a company has become ‘carbon neutral’. In most cases these claims are fabricated and carefully tweaked in order to hide the truth. In other words – Greenwashing.*

Two British companies – Shell and BP – ranked in the top 15 of the most polluting 100. As recently as September 2022, these two companies had their role in fuelling the climate crisis scrutinised in the White House. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has said that ‘As we face more deadly, extreme weather around the globe, fossil fuel companies are reaping record profits and ramping up their misleading PR tactics to distract from their central role in fuelling the climate crisis’. They go on to say that ‘Big Oil is “gaslighting” the public’. The gaslighting in question is said to include tactics such as the use of ‘unproven technology, accounting gimmicks and misleading language to hide the reality [of their sustainability claims]’. The committee’s investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s greenwashing campaign found that ‘Contrary to their pledges, fossil fuel companies have not organized their businesses around becoming low-emissions, renewable energy companies.’.(4) Shell is a great example of this; they pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2050, yet internal emails reveal their plans to skirt around the issue, using extremely vague language which gives the impression of a company taking a hard stance against climate change with their ‘climate pledge’ yet in the emails they say that it is ‘not a Shell business plan’, in layman's terms, their ‘pledge’ is just a marketing tool, and they have no intention to actually follow it through. They also claimed that the net-zero goal was a ‘collective ambition of the world’ rather than a ‘Shell target’, showing their commitment to shifting the blame off them onto the consumer. Even outside the realm of corporate emails, Shell was at the centre of attention as they tweeted a poll asking: ‘What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?’. This is yet another example of Shell trying to gaslight the consumer, telling us that it is solely our responsibility to change, not theirs. In the online era corporations have found a new way to get away with their wrongdoings, they run their online accounts as a science with carefully created, timed and worded posts designed to spin their lies under the guise of being casual, relatable and ‘one of us’. However, some user responses included ‘I commit to never buying Shell gasoline’ and one called on Shell to answer their own question asking ‘@Shell – what are YOU willing to change to reduce emissions?(5). Clearly this act is unacceptable, and it therefore cannot go unpunished.

Moving away from the fossil fuel industry and see that the greenwashing doesn’t end here. Volkswagen were revealed to have used a software dubbed a ‘defeat device’ to ‘detect when they were being tested’ and alter their engine performance accordingly in order to pass the increasingly strict emissions tests and hide how environmentally damaging their cars truly are from the consumers who thought they were buying a ‘cleaner’ car and who would avoid it if they knew the reality. (6)

We can move even further away. Fiji Water have been accused of using ‘egregious tactics’ to back up their claims of being ‘carbon negative’ (taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than they produce). They claimed to be offsetting 120% of their emissions, when in reality they used a tactic called ‘forward crediting’. This allowed them to say they were carbon negative using models that showed that they would be in the future. In reality, it would take until 2037 to actually fulfil these claims, yet they made it appear as if they were doing this in the current day (6), tricking consumers who were willing to pay more in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

This brings us back to that twitter comment, ‘@Shell [@all_corporations!] – what are YOU willing to change to reduce emissions? This is what we should be asking. Instead of investing your time and resources into hiding, manipulating, or downright lying about your emissions, maybe it’s time for you to finally clean up your acts and make up for the damage you have caused through decades of lies, cover-ups and scandals. We need the deception to end and real change to start because we can’t do it alone. If we are going to reduce our collective consumption of fossil fuels, and products that use them, we need to know which products are truly ‘green’. The lies must stop.

* ‘disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.’


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