Words by Justin McCulloch
“Palm Oil Free”
“Made from 100% recycled materials”
“Profits go to people in need”
Labels such as these appear alongside the food we eat, the cosmetics we buy, and the business we support. We see governments and businesses pledging to go “carbon neutral” and “support sustainable production” as part of their advertising. But what does it actually mean?
These are examples of ‘greenwashing’, a tool in public relations and marketing which proposes that an organisation’s products, aims, or policies be environmentally and socially conscious.
Do you think you might be a victim of greenwashing?
As conscious consumers, we choose to believe that the choices we make are the right ones — that they contribute to social, economic, and environmentally sustainable choices. These might be smaller choices such as using a bamboo toothbrush or reusable keep-cup, or bigger lifestyle changes such as leaving the car at home whenever you can or living off a plant-based diet to reduce your carbon footprint. However, these things won’t save the world. Or at least, not on their own.
The global fuel giant BP is the textbook example of corporate greenwashing. In 2000, the petrol giant sought to start the new millennium with a new image by beginning to explore energy options in natural gas and solar alongside petroleum. This also involved rebranding from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum’ — complete with a change in their image from the distinct, authority invoking shield of old, to the helios design we know today; even the change in capitalisation of BP appears friendlier. While BP has invested heavily in alternative forms of energy, they are still dwarfed by their interests in petroleum exploration across the globe. To many, BP remains synonymous with ecological catastrophe, especially after the Horizon Deepwater disaster in 2010, the largest oil spill in the world.
While we often think about greenwashing in the context of capitalism and business, we should also consider how governments may be guilty of greenwashing. For example, take the City of Adelaide (CoA) and its goal to be the first Carbon Neutral City in the world, backed by Carbon Neutral Adelaide. This huge endeavour seeks to reduce the emissions from buildings and infrastructure in CoA, to work towards zero-emissions transport to and within the city and offsetting any remaining emissions. While a worthy goal, and one I wholeheartedly support, it is possible to argue that CoA’s quest is an example of political greenwashing. In Australia, transport is the third highest source of CO2 emissions at 19%, second only to electricity, and is steadily rising due to population growth and an increase in car ownership. While alternative transport options such as ride-sharing, electric vehicles, public transport and cycling are available in Adelaide, we are also recognised as one of the most car-dominated capital cities in Australia, exemplified by the State Government pledging to improve intersections for driving commuters into the CBD after slashing public transport options.
This isn’t to say that all organisations who promote sustainable change through their policies and projects are guilty of greenwashing. While businesses such as Who Gives a Crap or Australian Ethical Super use their environmental and social policy positions in their marketing and PR, they also actively promote and participate in positive change. Not only does Who Gives a Crap make and sell environmentally sustainable products, they donate 50% of their profits to help build toilets in developing communities, improving health outcomes for those in need. On the other hand, Australian Ethical Super aim to contribute to a low-carbon economy through divesting from fossil fuel and companies who exploit workers, asylum seekers, or animals, instead investing in environmentally and socially conscious businesses involved with renewable energy. Even Adelaide Uni’s own Ecoversity promotes conscious sustainable action in students and staff across our campuses.
While corporate giants such as BP, or even the Federal Government, might give the impression that there isn’t a lot you can do to change things, and where the term ‘greenwashing’ might make it seem that even the most environmentally sustainable options are not what they seem, hope isn’t entirely lost. The world is on the precipice of change with global movements such as the School Strike for Climate and Extinction Rebellion fighting for change in climate policy and regulation. While consumer goods such as reusable coffee cups and other zero-waste alternatives becoming increasingly commonplace in our homes, offices, and backpacks.
It’s a damn cliché but try to be the positive change you want in the world. Ride a bike to uni, give your classmate a KeepCup, or even avoid animal products one or two days of the week.
Or by doing these things, perhaps we are greenwashing ourselves.
Justin is a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences, and a committee member of the Adelaide Sustainability Association and the Adelaide Uni Geography and Development Society. He has definitely been greenwashed in the past but he’ll strongly deny it.