There have been very few times I have been homicidally angry in my life – in fact I can count them on the fingers of one hand: The first time was when Trevor Chappell bowled underarm to Brian McKechnie at the MCG in 1981… Grr. STILL rarked about that! The second was when Warner Brothers tried to make out that Prince was crazy because he had the temerity to dare protest their heavy-handed mismanagement of his career. The third – and easily worst – time was when I was innocently watching TV and an ad from an energy company came on. In essence; it depicted a picture perfect family playing on a pristine beach with a message along the lines of; ‘we’re working towards a better more environmentally friendly future – come with us’.
… Woah, sorry for the delay but I just had to go chuck a bucket of ice water on my face to get all the boiling blood out of my eyeballs. The sheer bare-faced audacity of an energy company taking the high ground on environmental issues when there is a mountain of documented proof they have been the ones steadfastly preventing it – and showing a beach of all things! – when there had just been yet another oil spill on our pristine beaches mere months before!
As an advertising guy, this was a powerful lesson on how easily emotions can be transformed in a mere 30 seconds.
What is Greenwashing
This energy company TV commercial was also the ultimate example of ‘Greenwashing’, like Tom Sawyer painting his wooden fence but with green paint instead of white. In essence; Greenwashing is where a company with a less-than-stellar record on environmental impact obscures/obfuscates or straight out lies about their past/present deeds to hide their sins. Often they will attempt this by exaggerating their efforts to help cleanse the environment in one sector of their business whilst the other sectors of their business carry on polluting merrily unrestrained. Like the way a magician will encourage you to watch his left hand whilst his right is switching the playing cards around.
But not all Greenwashing is so cut and dried as the above example. An oil company claiming the high ground on the environment without even bothering to give examples of their own efforts is the known maximum of hypocrisy human beings are capable of. In Greenwashing terms; that is dark green paint slapped on so thick no light whatsoever can shine through. Most companies Greenwash in far more subtle shades and levels of translucence than that.
Why Greenwash at all?
Put simply; successful vendors always ‘fish where the fish are’. So if they detect any change in customer appetites they will quickly alter their offering to match that change. The clearest indicators of this dance in action is in beautycare. Even a cursory glance at many of these products will clearly show how the manufacturers have reacted to their customers’ concerns. Until recently these goods were always developed with NO animal testing (or cruelty) and NO artificial colours. Now other ‘NO’s have been included like synthetics, petroleum and even individual compounds like parabens and sulphates. In other words many beautycare customers have a growing awareness of what is actually leeching into their bodies – and into the environment – and are purchasing accordingly.
This also means environmental consideration is now no longer confined to an easily mocked tree-hugging, whalesong-humming, tie dye-overalled greenie fringe – it resides in the so-called silent majority too. And one which understands product composition down to an ester level. Vendors who fail to react to this will be out of business promptly – hence the mad scramble for a Greenwashed halo.
Sometimes green really is green
On the other hand, just because a company makes a claim that they care about the environment doesn’t automatically mean they are Greenwashing – far from it! Some of the companies we have covered in the pages of this august magazine have made great strides in making genuine change for the better. For example Mission Estate have been proactive in moving away from herbicide and pesticide use and introduced renewable energy use in their winemaking processes. Waitiri Creek persist with picking and pruning their grapes by carbon-zero hand rather than via the more economically efficient method of using machines. Even global automotive giants like RollsRoyce are wasting no time in transforming their vehicles from combustion engines to electric – and with talk of electrifying their aircraft engines too! These are all innovations that should be celebrated not doubted as these are companies who are all walking the talk.
But no one should just take such claims at face value, they should always be checked though this shouldn’t be a biggie with these guys. Firms that are genuine about changing their processes for the environment’s sake are usually proud of their efforts – and why not, these changes normally come at considerable cost to their businesses so they’ve had to make tough and expensive decisions to get there. For this reason the genuine firms are usually transparent about how they’ve changed because they want you to know how much they’ve spent to become greener.
Show some starch in searching for change
Then there are those companies who have made – some – progress but who could, and perhaps should, do a lot more. These are the companies who are tiptoeing around the perimeter of Greenwashing – the tinted green washes.
A glaring example of this type of company is a supermarket. Walk into any of these stores and you’ll see a fake forest of plastic in the form of molded packaging, shrinkwrapping, polystyrene foam signage and plastic shopping baskets.
But hey – they’ve got rid of high-density polyethylene shopping bags so they’ve gone green don’t ya know?! Too bad about all the other plastics instore and all the diesel used to transport all the goods into the store from every corner of the Earth plus all the pesticides and herbicides used to keep all these food items looking nice and perfect on the magnetite-coated shelving units.
However, we shouldn’t belittle the supermarkets’ efforts as, unlike many other vendors, they have actually been quick to react to their customers’ increasing concerns about our society’s on-going apathy toward climate change. Plus; a start is a start and ditching the ubiquitous plastic shopping bags is a huge beginning as those things were littering absolutely everywhere in our environment. Plus, virtually 100% of shoppers have happily embraced the change – surely suggesting to cloth-eared politicians that a massive chunk of the voting public have an appetite for genuine change.
It’s a pity though that the supermarkets didn’t take note of the ‘genuine’ part of this appetite as they chose to act swiftly by going with paper bags as their replacement. This was a Great Leap Backwards as paper is an inferior material; it tears easily, has limited elasticity and loses all structural integrity when it gets wet. Paper bags are basically so inherently crap at transporting groceries we danced for joy back in the day when plastic bags were introduced as a far superior option!
Reinforcing negative stereotypes
All this does is once again reinforce the misconception that sustainable products = inferior products. Yet there is no reason why this has to be the way. The native qualities of plastic are good and shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater, we just need a replacement that is biodegradable and doesn’t require deforestation or smoke-belching factories to produce.
One such option has been developed locally with For the Better Good making plastic substitute from starches like corn and potatoes. Currently their focus has been on creating a substitute for drink bottles that are not only as good as their plastic counterparts but are recyclable but compostable as well. Who’s to say that For the Better Good couldn’t create a substitute for plastic bags too? Especially if they were given a large guaranteed market – like perhaps a supermarket chain or two – to expand, develop and refine their product.
Thicker paint to block out more light
Airlines fly passengers and freight from one destination to another sometimes over hundreds of kilometres, sometimes over thousands. Their planes run on fossil fuels and spew vapour into the atmosphere every inch of the approximately 100,000 journeys they make every day around the world. These airlines all have ground crews who use diesel carts to pull their baggage trolleys around and they even print their boarding passes on paper. Yet most of these airlines will also have a Sustainability Department pumping out a flood of enthusiastic emails about Net Zero Emissions targets each airline is aiming for – that always seem to keep hopping backwards just out of reach a mere tantalizing couple of decades away.
So what are these Sustainability Departments really doing? Hardcore Greenwashing of course.
But do they have much choice? Not really. Sure, an airline can use electric carts to drag their trolleys around – if the luggage stacks are light enough – and use recycled paper for their boarding passes, but there’s still a rather large elephant in the room: How can any airline fly a plane from one destination to another if they only have access to aircraft that operate on carbon-emitting fossil fuels? So, even if all the airlines wished really hard on their birthdays to be able to go green – their dreams will never come true. Unless, of course, our dear friends in the energy sector allow them…
The origin of every Greenwash
Rolls-Royce were originally designed as EVs back in the early years of the 20th century. Charles Rolls had been so impressed by Columbia Motor Carriages he wanted to have a crack at an electric vehicle himself. ‘The electric car is perfectly noiseless and clean,’ he said in 1900, ‘There is no smell or vibration. They should become very useful when fixed charging stations can be arranged.’
The problem was, the oil barons of the time had no intention of allowing Rolls’ electric vision to come to fruition – as there was no money in it for them. What followed was a colossal struggle for control of the burgeoning automobile industry and, like the Nazi vs Communist struggle for power in Germany during the 1930s, the battle was brutal and bloody. Electric vehicles were painted as weak and a front for fraudulent manufacturers.
Of course, we all know how that conflict played out; the oil barons got their way and the entire planet has been in their thrall ever since. Every subsequent war has been fought for control of the energy sector even if we’re told it is for something else. Even the current conflict in Ukraine is really about who gets to control the market for Russian oil and gas.
When the global energy market is worth US$6 trillion a year it is easy to understand why the energy sector is so opposed to any move away from fossil fuels. Excuse #1 for the Energy Sector, or any of their political stooges, is that developing up any other form of alternative energy production is expensive.
This may be true, yet US$144.1B was spent in producing the US’ share of 2.1% of global oil production in 2020. That’s $144B to generate 2.1% of the world’s oil in one year – and that’s only extracting, processing and distributing product from existing fields, not taking the colossal costs of exploration into account.
By any stretch of imagination those are big numbers. Imagine, if you will, what a single year’s global oil production budget (using the US figures) could do to develop at least one clean(er) alternative energy supply. You’d think that US$7.2 trillion would go a long way to getting pretty much any ridiculously large project you can think of off the ground. Even the absurdly expensive Californian High Speed Rail Project, currently costed at US$128B for 1300km of track, would be chump change to such a budget.
Human beings messing with the environment is nothing new as our cavemen ancestors probably started fire to forests, either accidentally or deliberately, from about 800,000 years ago. We began our earliest efforts in farming around 12,000 years ago and the first real large-scale imposition on the environment was the Sadd el-Kafara Dam built by the ancient Egyptians as a failed attempt to control the Nile 5000 years ago.
Carbon emissions really started with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century and the burning of coal to drive the steam engines. But the warnings started then too with French physicist Claude Pouillet noting that the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could combine with water vapour to trap infrared radiation and therefore warm the Earth.
That was in 1838! So what is the world doing about cutting back on this rise in pollution? You guessed it; nothing more than Greenwashing! 147 nations all gathered together in 1997 for the impressive-sounding Kyoto Protocol where they all outwardly agreed that ‘hey, someone somewhere really ought to do something about climate change!’ What they really wanted though was a scheme that sounded like they were doing something but in reality would work nicely as a Greenwashing mechanism. Their solution? Emissions Trading. This allows countries that have clean emission units to spare to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.
In theory this could work – as it was designed as a stopgap to cover the transitional period while a manufacturer or logistics supplier moved from a heavily pollutant state to a lesser one. But if the transitional part of the equation is not policed then it serves only as a smokescreen for a pollutant. By buying enough carbon credits a company can simply balance out their unchanging emissions for a nice shiny net-zero halo.
The trouble is this system works for tidily for greenbacks not green issues as the environment isn’t a man-made concept like finance that can be zero summed tidily on a Reserve Bank spreadsheet; each time Nature loses, we all lose.
As usual, it’s up to us
So with the energy sector, heavy industry and their buddies in governments around the world Greenwashing away like crazy – are we doomed to ever-worsening climate change?
Not at all. Because the power is in our – the consumer’s hands. No one else’s.
To illustrate; a few years ago Warner Brothers decided that Joss Stone was going to become the hot new blue-eyed soul singer and spent a fortune on crafting her image, pairing her with all the right musicians and songwriters with impeccable credentials.
It was a good plan except for one thing; Amy Winehouse appeared out of nowhere and the public decided en masse virtually overnight that Amy had it all and was the real deal. So poor old Joss got trampled under the Great Unwashed’s rush to buy Back to Black.
Living in a capitalist society has its pros and cons but it does mean that the market rules all. So, if we change our purchase behaviour then the market has no choice but to adapt to meet it. If there is no money to be made from products that cause a negative effect on the environment, they will be gone in a trice. We can see it with beautycare and the rise of electric cars, concentrated purchasing power has forced the market to move. Plus, while not leading the way, supermarkets have demonstrated that mass behavioural change is not impossible to bring about, in fact it’s not even particularly difficult if the right solutions are brought forward. We don’t have to settle for inferior products, we just demand better ones that don’t harm our environment.
Greenwashing only works if we don’t ask questions so if a company refuses transparency then we should refuse purchase. They need us more than we need them, no matter what they say. As good environmentalists and capitalists we shouldn’t get angry about inaction we should just allow the market to decide our future.