Opinion | The dark art of greenwashing our future

Did truth in advertising ever really exist, or has it always been a contradiction in terms? If embellishment, exaggeration, half-truths and outright lies mean greater profit, or provides an advantage over your competition, truth becomes expendable.

Whitewashing is the practice making something unclean or untrue appear to be otherwise, whitewashing unpleasant historical truths for instance. Insert green for white and you have greenwashing, the practice of giving the appearance of being environmentally conscious, a veneer of environmental respectability, ethical responsibility. Truth can be in short supply, however, when it comes to environmental claims and “green” marketing.

More and more companies are getting on the green bandwagon, employing greenwashing to sell something. When used to describe a company’s environmental ethic or practices, green has become largely meaningless, a marketing tool, virtue signalling with a profit motive. They may have little, if any, concern for the environment. It is simply an opportunity to cash in.

Consumers are continuously manipulated by false or misleading marketing claims. Companies label their products as “green,” “environmentally friendly,” “biodegradable,” “designed for the environment,” “ethically sourced” or some other equally vague, non-certifiable language, as an incentive to buy their product or service. It is difficult for the average consumer to discern whether a company has a genuine concern for the environment or is just burnishing its image so that we will buy whatever it is they are selling.

If a company’s environmental claims sound too good to be true, they often are. Some fossil fuel companies make token investments in wind or solar, for instance, leveraging their marketing claims of being environmentally responsible. Carbon capture and storage is touted by the oil and gas sector as their technology of choice to reduce production emissions. CC&S is, at best, a marginal and unproven technology, which buys the sector time to continue to exploit their fossil fuel resources and maximize profits, while doing little to actually reduce emissions. Other fossil fuel companies, looking for the green sheen, play the shell game of spinning off their dirtiest assets to other companies, who continue to exploit these assets.

Then there is the murky world of carbon offsets/carbon credits, more window dressing and smoke and mirrors diversions that polluters use as a distraction while they continue with their climate damaging practices.

In the financial sector, investors look to ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) reporting to determine a fund’s level of environmental and social responsibility. ESG information can be confusing or misleading, so it pays to be skeptical of the hype as many still include fossil fuel companies. ESG practices are good in principle if their metrics are standardized and transparent. It is a case of caveat emptor.

Norway presents an interesting dichotomy, a contradiction. Its own energy needs are met through its abundant supply of hydroelectricity and renewables, presenting itself as a shining example of a climate-friendly nation. It is also a petroleum powerhouse and one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas from its North Sea oilfields, mainly to western Europe, exports that have increased with the war in Ukraine. Norway’s green credentials have been acquired, at least in part, on the back of its lucrative oil and gas industry. Norway plans to increase production, oil and gas taxes lowered to increase fossil fuel investment, production increased at the expense of renewables.

This paradox has created a divide between Norwegian citizens and politicians who wish to expand oil and gas production and those, particularly its youth, who see the hypocrisy, and want to see their country meet its climate change emissions reduction targets. Sound familiar?

As long as individuals, pension funds, governments and banks continue to invest in or subsidize the fossil fuel industry, it will happily produce as much oil and gas as it can, making as much money as it can. This is the nature of capitalism.

If we continue to choose profit over our climate our fate is sealed, and we become dead men walking.

Wayne Poole lives and writes from Dundas.

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