Climate change is finally being treated as a crisis. Gone are the years when it was spoken about in hushed tones, argued against, or dismissed entirely. Students are on strikes all over the globe and political parties are focusing their campaigns on how to combat it. Everyone is talking about climate change because it is here. Large corporations are changing their processes, changing their technology, because they have more power to affect it than the average person. Oil companies like Shell, British Petroleum, the ones who are bearing the brunt of eco-positive initiatives, are planting trees at an alarming rate to help reduce their carbon footprint. Even Donald Trump, the man who did more than anyone to hurt this crusade by leaving the Paris Accord, agreed to a reforestation project. But are these genuine strategies to help us in this fight, or are they just gimmicks, another way for corporations and politicians to hop on the bandwagon and make big bucks?
Greenwashing is the practice of making misleading sustainability claims that do not match with the company’s actions. It is the corporate version of lying to your friends about your exam marks, just because you don’t want to look bad in front of them. While, it may be a harmless practice in college, when done on a global scale, it warrants attention. The term Greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986, when environmental issues were not afforded the gravitas they are today. But the actual practice began earlier. In the 1960’s American power Westinghouse Electric Corporation, falsely advertised the safety and environmental impact of nuclear power plants. The advertisement showed an all-American family lazing on a glassy lake as the gloomy spectre of the nuclear power plant lay silhouetted in the background. In 2013, the company replayed these ads but failed to mention how they had been cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for concealing flaws in their design and leaking radioactive material into the groundwater for years.
Unfortunately, this practice of creating false impressions is not restricted to nuclear companies, it expands to almost everyone, even those we buy our essentials from. A study conducted during 2010-11 found out that 51% of the claims made by Indian corporations were culpable of greenwashing, and 37.7% of these claims were ambiguous in nature. With little regulatory oversight and corrupt administrations, this dangerous cocktail of false advertising confuses the common man.
Unilever, the beloved conglomerate that has found its place in our bathrooms with brands like Lux, Dove, Lifebuoy, Pears, or Sunsilk and in our kitchens with Cornetto, Magnum, Lipton, Bru, or Knorr, is a prime example of this movement. Unilever has made global claims of their sustainability policies, at trendy New York art centers and at corporate AGMs in Holland. In 2010, Unilever introduced the ‘Sustainable Living Plan’. The aim of this plan was to rethink plastic packaging, support sustainable sourcing, and provide better opportunities for minority groups. A 2016 report released by the company showed a 28% drop in waste, 51% of raw agricultural products were sourced sustainably, and 920,000 women felt safer and empowered to learn new skills. However, this presents a biased image of their activities. In 2001, in India, their mercury plant led to a leak in the serene forests of Kodaikanal, and permanently disabled many of the employees at their factory. The firm was forced by Tamil Nadu authorities to shut the factory down and make an undisclosed ex-gratia payment to 591 ex-employees and their families after a long legal battle in 2016. A total of 45 employees and 18 children died as an effect of the mercury poisoning, according to a report, a claim the company immediately denied.
Nestle recently introduced an Eco-Shape bottle, which claims to have 19.5% less plastic than comparable beverage bottles. This, along with images of pristine mountains and lakes stuffed in its advertisements, have won it many awards, but studies show that only 31% of Nestle plastic bottles are recycled and their so-called ‘positive change’ is dumped in landfills and oceans. To market a product as being healthy and sell it in plastic containers when other sustainable packaging options may be available is ironic, and a perfect example of greenwashing. This time their claim isn’t wrong, but their practices are.
Nevertheless, one cannot discount that there are corporations that have pledged millions of dollars towards climate change, and they are passionate about the cause. However, while Microsoft pledges to eliminate their carbon footprint by 2035, at the same time, they also supply oil and gas companies with state-of-the-art tools for extractions and make a fortune from these deals.
A 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. Among millennials that number jumps to 72%. If corporations convincingly sell their products as ‘green’ consumers lap it all up, without caring for the sordid history of its manufacturing. Every business has to make profits to survive, but hiding and cheating do not seem like the correct way to move forward especially when the health of the planet is dependent on it.
The reforestation practices that oil corporations are harping about should be taken with a pinch of salt, according to Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford. Even though reforestation has its merits, it cannot single-handedly save our planet. There is a gross overestimation of the time required by new trees to absorb carbon dioxide. This along with the land required for agricultural activities to feed 7 billion people, as well as the space devoted to housing and industrial processes, makes it impossible to have enough land for human existence and to save the environment. At this stage, with the urgency required for the human race to survive, such claims only lead to misinformation and a false sense of security.
Marketing is very closely linked to human psychology. If a product is painted green, we assume that it is made in an environmentally responsible manner. It is easy to manipulate consumer behaviour. Corporations, with their millions of dollars, lobby and push for environmentally disastrous deals. They in-turn also get huge bonuses and corporate tax incentives. This vicious cycle is sustained by the pillars of capitalism. A grave societal change in consumer behaviour can overcome this and diminish the corporation’s influence.
This leads me to the tenet of my argument: can we trust our corporations, especially when it comes to the protection of the environment? We do not know what to believe because we are faced with an information overload. A blue tick on Twitter assuages our fear more than hard-hitting journalism. Asymmetric information benefits the wrong-doers. The corporation’s goal is profit making and therefore, not revealing the whole truth is in their best interests. It is in ours to have a complete picture of the issues so that we can make an informed choice. Consumers read the label and take the corporations’ greenwashing as fact. We need government agencies and independent organisations to lay down stringent measures for corporations, especially where institutions that speak for the people can easily be compromised and people may not be aware of it to ask questions. We need change from the ground up, because even though there might be a lot of money to be made, what use will that money be if there cannot be life anymore.
Aman Udeshi is interested in writing about the future and the issues plaguing it.