Greenwash: a critical exposé highlights need for action

Green has become the new black for some companies, but often there is more at play than environmental consciousness. davesag/flickr

Civilisation is doomed. If Guy Pearse’s Greenwash doesn’t convince you of this then you’re a more optimistic person than me. That, or you’ve been led down one of the most dangerous marketing blind-alleys since Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, started working for the cigarette companies.

Greenwash exposes the spin, scams and marketing plans through which multinational companies portray themselves as doing their bit to lower carbon emissions.

Arranged by product categories: beer, cars, celebrities, food, electricity, home appliances, banks, pets, sports and even sex, Greenwash traces and evaluates companies’ claims to carbon friendliness against the realities of their production, investment, and growth figures. In many cases these measures and the promises made by advertising campaigns don’t add up.

The scale of the green branding swindle is mammoth, and there are some unexpected names that crop up; the adventure sports specialist Patagonia for one. This is a company which offers information about supply chains for each of their products, gives 1% of sales revenue to environmental causes and sponsors conservation efforts. Sure, Patagonia may have gone further than most, but Pearse suggests they’re not guiltless and neither are most other companies that claim to be clean.

Perhaps the carbon neutrality proffered by certain banks and investment bodies, however, sets the nadir of the green-washing game. Pearse explains that many banks simultaneously provide capital to, and reap investment profits from hugely carbon-intensive industries. Yet by investing in a fleet of hybrid cars or partnering with environmental charities, these businesses simultaneously proffer an eco-friendly image.

What is the take-home argument from the cases assembled in Greenwash? It goes something like this. Lets say you want to cut your household carbon footprint. You decide to replace your fossil fuel energy with renewable sources. A few choices come to mind; solar power, an electric car, and a wood-fired range to cook on. Efficient, trendy and fun, better still, it’s all carbon neutral.

Lots of companies are selling products to consumers who want to make these changes. By advertising the idea that their offerings are emission-free, products are proffered as the cornerstones of a save the planet lifestyle.

Starbucks have partnered with Conservation International for over 14 years to promote coffee production practices that conserve biodiversity. Olesund/flickr

Beware, says Pearse. In most cases, companies that portray their activities in this way fail to factor in a most important aspect of business - the production and supply chain emissions. This includes the carbon emitted in the manufacture of the materials for your lovely new Nissan Leaf, the diesel burned by the trucks, trains and sea vessels that ship these materials to and from factories, and onwards to your home.

Once these aspects of a product’s lifespan are considered, many claims to eco-friendliness and carbon neutrality fail to wash.

Pearse’s work is important. Greenwash is a useful source text for researchers and graduate students who must dig further into the inconsistencies that Greenwash uncovers. I for one, wish I had had this book when writing a recent report concerning the ways in which consumers relate to the natural world in their leisure pursuits.

Ethical consumers and those like me, with rapidly rising levels of eco-paranoia, would also do well to read this and adjust their consumption accordingly.

Surely the point of Greenwash however is not to effect changes in those of us who are already converted. Rather it is to reach company bosses, branding gurus and environmental ministers.

It is with regards to this audience that Pearse misses a trick. Perhaps all his time spent unpacking marketing deceptions has left him unwilling to enter the marketing game himself. In any case, Greenwash shrinks from promoting itself and Pearses’ ideas as carefully as say Naomi Klein’s No Logo or Morgan Spurlock’s various Supersize projects.

Indeed, Greenwash is closer to a laundry list of marketing fiddles than the compelling narratives shared by these best-seller corporate-exposé forerunners. This is unfortunate, because Pearse’s book is more important than many of its predecessors. Yet with little in the way of detailed recommendations towards redressing the malpractice it exposes, Greenwash may fail to influence the powerful readership it deserves.

Even with “zero emission” cars such as the Nissan Leaf, does the carbon emitted in its manufacture come into consideration? arnolddeleon/flickr

From a researcher’s point of view, it’s annoying when some wise guy comes along and tells you that your project has failed to do something that you never intended it to do. Pearse sets out to discover whether the climate-friendly revolution being advertised by big business is real. He demonstrates that it’s not.

Nevertheless, Pearse does point out that if climate scientists are right, then this is the decade in which we must take action if there is to be any chance of rebalancing our fragile carbon accounts. With this urgency in mind some might suggest that Greenwash offers too few suggestions for how the accounting procedures to evaluate claims to greenness might be implemented.

Is it possible that, just as foodstuffs are packaged with indications of nutritional values in kilojoules or calories, they could also come with a measure of the approximate energy expended in their manufacture and supply?

I don’t necessarily agree with Pearse that businesses should take the responsibility for carbon emissions during the use and consumption of the products that they sell. I think that’s my responsibility as a consumer.

I do agree however, that my ability to consume responsibly is limited by the misinformation disseminated by these companies’ marketing communications.

Neither is there much in the way of suggestions as to how standards of green advertising could be evaluated and regulated as accurate or false. Perhaps we need commissions to apply advertising standards to eco-friendly claims. External standards are currently available, but these are voluntary criteria that may themselves be flawed for the same reasons that Greenwash explains.

In the meantime, the message I take from Greenwash is that if the carbon-neutral revolution is to be implemented beyond the worlds of corporate spin or well-meaning but essentially powerless householders, then we need these kinds of accounting and advertising management tools right away.

Read Greenwash and then send your copy to a CEO, environment minister, lobby group, or advertising account manager. Pearse has started a useful ball rolling, but if the situation is as bad as he suggests, then his work needs to be developed further, and fast.