Big brand greenwashing exposed in new book

February 10, 2013

Greenwash: Big Brands & Carbon Scams
Guy Pearse
Black Inc., 2012
264 pages, $29.99 (pb)

The response of big business to global warming, their propaganda would have us believe, is to ride to the rescue by reducing their carbon emissions. As Guy Pearse shows in Greenwash, however, this is just a marketing ploy to attract the dollars of environmentally concerned customers.

Techniques for slapping on a green veneer include cost-free green rhetoric, slogans, logos and name changes. Oil giant, BP, for example, became Beyond Petroleum although fossil fuels deliver 98% of its revenue.

Also popular are the setting of vague and distant “carbon-neutral” targets. Where carbon-reduction is quantified and documented in glossy sustainability reports, mathematical sleight-of-hand and fancy linguistic footwork obscure the bigger picture of rising emissions.

Excluding overseas operations or the manufacturing outsourced to carbon-intensive factories in developing countries helps to cook the carbon books. So does ignoring the 90% or more of a big corporation's total carbon footprint found in supply chain carbon emissions (such as raw materials, packaging and transport).

Green tokenism is a favourite in the greenwasher’s palette. A few green products, made in miniscule numbers, are heavily promoted to lend “green kudos” to their major line of carbon-heavy business.

Car-makers plug their hybrid and electric vehicles, coal-fired electricity producers tout their tiny involvement in renewable energy, and builders such as Australia’s Grocon showcase on-site renewable energy buildings. However, their core business remains petrol-guzzling cars, fossil fuel power and huge concrete-and-steel high rises.

Hyped examples of renewable energy use (solar panels at head office, for example) also act as tokenistic diversions. McDonald’s turns the organic waste from its restaurants in Switzerland into bio-gas for its trucks. But the rest of its 33,500 restaurants serve 64 million cheeseburgers a day, each with a serving of the three kilograms of carbon dioxide used to make it.

Richard Branson finds that biofuels make great window-dressing for Virgin’s aeroplanes, but he doesn’t mention how such “green” jet fuels rely on the destruction of forest carbon-sinks. Nor does he publicise the force-feeding of CO2 from coal-fired power stations to turbo-charge algae growth.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic sets itself quietly for a six-fold increase in CO2 per space passenger.

Banks promote the earth-friendly way they shuffle money around in their greened offices. But they are mute about the fossil fuel projects the money finances (the ANZ bank, for example, is the largest financer of new coal projects in Australia).

Greened-up accounting, legal and consultancy firms also “play a crucial role in floating, financing and defending” the world’s biggest carbon polluters amongst their fossil fuel clients.

Green minimalism plunges to its depths with “Earth Hour” ― killing their office lights for one hour on one Saturday night a year is the cheap entry price to this green charade for Earth Hour’s 20,000 business sponsors. These include heavy carbon polluters such as mining companies, coal-fired power generators, car-makers and steel-makers.

And the result for the atmosphere? The equivalent of pausing global coal use for two minutes.

Of course, it never hurts one’s green image to collaborate with green academia (Panasonic funded the establishment of a Chair in Environmental Sustainability at Macquarie University in Sydney) or certain environmental groups (the World Wildlife Fund accepts $70 million a year from corporations who prize the green business value of the WWF’s panda logo).

“Green” power companies make valuable greenwash partners, too. The Australian Football League went carbon-neutral in 2006 with Origin Energy, the largest green energy retailer in Australia. The company nevertheless produces half its electricity from coal or gas-fired sources.

Origin's one-third share in the coal seam gas from the huge Australia Pacific Liquefied Natural Gas export project will erase all the emissions saved by Origin’s green power sales since 1999, ten times over.

“In the end”, concludes Pearse, greenwashing is simply about “looking green to increase profits”.

Don’t just take his word for it. The casino giant, Caesars Entertainment, explicitly says a green image makeover is good for business profits: “Climate change presents the company with an opportunity to strengthen its reputation and brand … we anticipate that over time this will lead to increased market share and revenues.”

Despite Pearse’s capitalist sympathies (he doesn’t want to “demonise big business or overlook the positive steps that many companies are making” in the challenge to be green “while remaining profitable and competitive”), he deftly peels away the green facade from many of world’s biggest capitalists.

It becomes apparent that the environmental challenge is beyond them, beyond the profit-driven market economy. To be truly green, we need to be red, too.

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