Greenwash

The counterpart of voluntary action by consumers is voluntary action by producers. In response to criticism, corporations will typically try to change public perceptions of what they do before they change what they do. It's cheaper. Thus rising public alarm about global warming has seen firms respond with a rich variety of dissimulation, of which greenwash has become the highest form. Greenwash has been defined as a strategy in which corporations 'put more money, time and energy into slick PR campaigns aimed at promoting their eco-friendly images, than they do to actually protecting the environment'.32 In responding to concern over their role in global warming, energy companies have been especially creative. Shell decided to describe its Canadian tar sands operations—in greenhouse terms by far the worst way to produce energy—as 'sustainable'. When challenged, the company displayed astonishing brio in defending its use of the word by invoking the authority of the Brundtland Report. Shell interpreted Brundtland's celebrated definition of sustainable development—'development which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'—to mean anything that helps to meet the world's growing energy needs, including tar sands. Although found guilty of misleading advertising by the UK Advertising Standards Authority,33 Shell is an organisation that seems unable to experience shame, and subsequently ran newspaper advertisements depicting its oil refinery chimneys emitting flowers instead of smoke. In a similar move, E.ON, the owner of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power plant, the third largest single source of carbon dioxide in Britain, installed solar panels on the roof of its administration block then issued a media release proclaiming: 'This is one of the cleanest coal fired power stations in the UK, and, by fitting this array, it just goes to show how committed we are to improving our environmental performance even further.'34 It was estimated that the panels reduced carbon emissions from the plant by less than one millionth.35

A large part of the resources of the global marketing and PR industries are now devoted to trying to convince the public that fossil fuel emissions are good for us. In one of the most creative tactics in advertising history, the coal industry is now trying to persuade us that coal-fuelled electricity is an 'environmentally sound' form of energy.36 To do so they have deployed the intentionally misleading term 'clean coal'. The phrase is used in the climate change debate to give the impression that coal is or can be benign because of the possibility that carbon emissions might be captured and stored underground.37 In truth, as we will see in Chapter 6, carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power plants is a technology still on the drawing board that will not have any effect on emissions for at least 20 years, if at all. When pressed on the point the industry claims that it has 'invested more than $50 billion in emission-reducing technology over the past 30 years'.38 The emissions reductions in question have nothing to do with climate change but are a response to government regulations requiring reductions in air pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide. The deception has been compared by Sheldon Rampton to the 'bait-and-switch' tactic used by fraudulent retailers and unscrupulous real estate agents in which customers lured by attractive offers are presented with a different and more expensive substitute.39 Note too that after fiercely resisting for decades the imposition of regulations to clean up air pollution from coal-fired power plants the industry now claims the results as proof of its commitment to the environment.

It's hard to imagine corporate spin being more cynical, but examples can be found. In the United States growing sales of SUVs and pick-up trucks—between 1999 and 2007 they exceeded sales of cars40—generated public ire. Concerned at the strident criticisms, General Motors—maker of the Hummer— decided to act. But rather than changing what it manufactured it created a magazine advertisement showing an SUV placed on an icefloe surrounded by inquisitive polar bears, penguins and whales. It was as if GM wanted both to assuage any concerns in the minds of potential buyers and incense environmentalists at the same time. Although disguised as its opposite, GM displayed the same contempt for its customers that Henry Ford did in his famous retort that those who complain about restricted choice for the Model T could have any colour they want, 'so long as it is black'. After all, as late as 2008 the vice-chairman of GM, Bob Lutz, was telling journalists that global warming was a 'crock of shit'.41 It was perhaps poetic justice that the single-minded focus on SUVs and pick-up trucks took GM to the point of bankruptcy in 2009. In January, as the company staved off collapse through a government bail-out, Bob Lutz complained: 'I have to stand in line at the Northwest counter. I've never quite experienced this before.'42

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