Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams by Guy Pearse was an eye-opener for a reader like me who pays practically no attention to brand advertising. I didn’t realise how many major brands are striving to present green credentials to their consumers. The book covers a multitude of them across many sectors of the economy, from banks to retailers, car manufacturers, electricity providers, appliances, sports, professional services, soft drinks, real estate, and many more, including even the sex industry.
In some respects it’s perhaps encouraging that so many firms think it important to communicate to the public that they are addressing the question of their carbon footprint and working to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their business. But looked at closely the positive message they proclaim is often highly disproportionate to the measures they are taking. Minor adjustments to practice are offered as if they were major reorientations of business.
Pearse is always anxious to give any credit that is due, but in the great majority of cases it can only be a tiny fraction of the credit that the brand advertising claims. HSBC bank, for instance, presents itself as fighting climate change. It seeks to be carbon-neutral in its operations, it has a ‘Carbon Finance Strategy’ to support clean technologies and non-fossil fuel energy solutions, and it partners with major environmental charities to inspire global action. But at the same time it has a 20 percent stake in Rio Tinto which Pearse suggests does over fifty times more harm than HSBC’s carbon-neutrality does good. It also owns large stakes in a host of other big-emitting fossil fuel companies, its research team regularly promotes coal and oil companies as good investments, and between 2006 and 2008 it provided over $10 billion to companies that are engaged in either the extraction or combustion of coal.
According to Toyota’s advertising Mother Nature drives a Prius hybrid, and Toyota is is hardly alone among car makers in creating fanciful climate-friendly advertisements. The company makes much of the 4 million hybrids it’s sold over the past fifteen years, but Pearse points to the larger context. Toyota has sold more than 100 million vehicles over the same period and 96 percent of them have not been hybrids. It sells nearly three gas-guzzling four-wheel drives, sports utility vehicles and utes for every hybrid.
There are all sorts of omissions from companies’ narratives of their climate-friendly undertakings. The supply chain is one. The use of their products is another. The expected expansion of firms another. Very often the greening message is focused only on the central operations of the business, and while in some cases these are worthwhile they are really only on the fringe of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the full extent of the business. Painstakingly, business by business, Pearse disentangles the climate-friendly advertising web woven around the firm’s operations and exposes it for the flimsy cover it often is. He acknowledges that claims vary in their quality. Walmart and Kraft and Panasonic are credited with at least “dipping a toe” in the water of the supply chain or consumer use, whereas those who throw around the term ‘clean coal’ with no technology to yet credibly support it are simply playing tricks on the gullible.
It would be easy for a book such as this to become simply a diatribe against the superficiality and deceptiveness of advertising. Pearse certainly uncovers enough material if that was his purpose. But it is climate change which is his overriding concern. He takes his stand on the science. Genuine and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are the only way to tackle dangerous climate change. This is no time for delusion, yet the impression that major brands are bringing about significantly lowered emissions is a delusion.
He is forthright and direct in conclusion:
“For the footprint of a big brand to be shrinking, all the emissions associated with the products it sells need to be shrinking. That’s what matters to the atmosphere. Yet as soon as we factor in the emissions that the companies disown, those from the supply chain and use of products, their claims to climate friendliness collapse.”
Greenwash is not harmless. It is dangerous because it gives the impression that climate change is being taken seriously when it isn’t. It diverts attention from what the science of climate change demands. It puts off of the day of reckoning. There’s a sense in which we are all ready to do that and take encouragement from greenwash. ‘Of course we all do partake in these things, you know,’ was the observation Pearse records from his father on reading the draft of the book. “Spot on,” adds the son, “and hence the book.”
We can’t have a successful clean energy revolution while a fake one is being successfully sold. We can’t afford to let ourselves be taken in by solutions which fall far short of what is required. That’s the underlying seriousness which commends the book and the time spent researching it. And it leads to the rethinks Pearse advocates in his conclusion.
Advertisers and PR consultants need to ask whether the work that many of them believe is positive for the planet is actually being used to greenwash brands. Those in the business of ranking green companies also need to reflect on the standards of sustainability they apply. Some prominent environmental groups should question their relationship with some of the worst greenwash offenders.
Pearse’s emphasis on the need for governments to do a reality check was welcome. The notion that business leadership can somehow substitute for regulation on climate change needs to be discarded. Only governments can take the big steps required to return the climate to safer territory and it’s high time they started to do so, before another decade is wasted in drifting.
He calls for companies themselves to recognise that greenwash will eventually be exposed and that they need to lift their game and take in the full range of effects of their operations. Finally, consumers need to recognise that there’s no way in which we can shop the planet green “one Subway sandwich at a time”. Nor is it a solution to transfer the emissions responsibility to the developing countries which produce the goods we eagerly buy.
The essential element on the path to addressing the climate crisis is a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing less will do. Pearse’s book is both an exposure of greenwash and an encouragement to more realistic engagement by those who dally with it.