Is greenwashing a sign of real change?

Increasingly, large corporations (with even larger carbon footprints) are putting forward ambitious climate pledges. Yet these commitments often lack clear planning and direction, making it hard not to treat them with cynicism and label them as shameless greenwashing. However, widespread commitments to climate action can also be interpreted as a sign of real change. Have we reached a tipping point in the norms that determine environmental attitudes?

In recent weeks global news headlines on climate change have been dominated by multi-billion-dollar pledges to the environment and carbon-neutral commitments. BP’s new CEO, Bernard Looney, hit the ground running by declaring that the oil and gas giant will become climate neutral by 2050. On February 16th Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and richest man on Earth, pledged $10 billion to address the climate crisis with the Bezos Earth Fund. In January, BlackRock investment managing corporation (with over $7 trillion in assets) joined the Climate Action 100+ initiative, touting the need to move towards sustainable investment

On paper, these are monumental announcements that involve diverse sectors, from retail and finance to oil and gas. However, they have received a mixed reception with many accusing them of being run-of-the-mill greenwashing. BP’s pledge has been accused of lacking a clear roadmap and effective tools. Bezos has been scorned for not addressing his company’s lack of environmental standards and paying more taxes. BlackRock was also reprimanded for using double-standards, including by former US vice-president Al Gore and Christopher Hohn of hedge fund TCI, who said that “major asset managers such as BlackRock have been shown to be full of greenwash.”

BP’s net-zero pledge looks like an attempt to grab some positive headlines by a new CEO but with little of substance to show how it will achieve these grand claims. Saying that they will invest more in low-carbon tech and less in oil and gas ‘over time’ is not a credible plan for reaching net zero.

Murray Worthy, senior campaigner at Global Witness.

Although it is beyond doubt that there is an inherent hypocrisy in corporations such as BP and Amazon making environmental claims (especially as they continue to expand their high carbon footprint business models), it is also true that their pledges are indicative of a shift in what is deemed acceptable and a reflection of changing norms.

A recent study, published in the Stanford University journal Psychological Science, leads to a more positive interpretation of the latest surge in corporate greenwashing. The study shows that people are more likely to change their behavior in response to seeing a significant amount of others changing theirs, indicating that even if pledges and commitments are just “greenwashing”, they could still be contributing to real change in environmental behavior and a first step towards modifying the normative landscape.

It is well known that people conform to normative information about other people’s current attitudes and behaviors.

Gregg Sparkman and Gregory M. Walton, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Dynamic Norms Promote Sustainable Behavior, Even if It Is Counternormative.

What is greenwashing

The term greenwashing was coined in the 1980s by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld. In particular, it was inspired by a series of Chevron commercials, titled People Do, that portrayed the company as a protector of animals. The campaign was incredibly successful, even winning an Effie advertising award. However, it also attracted the attention and scorn of environmentalists who were quick to point out that the ads came with no substantial change in Chevron’s business practices.  

Put in simple terms, greenwashing is the practice of misleading people to believe that a company is engaging in virtuous practices so as to cover up poor practices: appearances vs reality; good marketing vs actual change. In practice, companies use misleading labels or advertising to depict themselves as environmentally responsible without actually taking significant measures in that direction.

 The biggest danger is not inaction. The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening when in fact almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR.

Greta Thunberg, COP25 in Madrid.

One of the most glaring instances in recent history was the Volkswagen diesel emissions fraud. The German automotive giant boasted about its green credentials whilst at the same time actively engaging in undermining the system. Such instances of “deceptive manipulation” are just one example of a new realm of greenwashing that is threatening to undermine climate goals by tampering with the very mechanisms that are supposed to measure progress.

In fact, Hans Hoogervorst, head of the International Accounting Standards Board, explains that “We should not expect sustainability reporting to be very effective in inducing companies to prioritize planet over profit […] Greenwashing is rampant.” Mr Hoogervorst even mentioned the Volkswagen example, highlighting how it was the industry leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability index when the emissions scandal emerged. This drives home the point of how hard it is to look under the bonnet of sustainability claims: “Part of the problem is the lack of a mechanism to monitor pledges and hold companies accountable”, echoes Jennifer Morgan, executive director of the environmental group Greenpeace International.

Widespread greenwashing could be a sign of real change 

As efforts to develop effective mechanisms to monitor pledges goes on, another angle from which to look at the huge increase in climate commitments is its effects on group mentality and established norms. Put simply, could the widespread use of greenwashing actually be a sign that we have reached a tipping point in the normative landscape of environmental attitudes? If enough people are talking about being sustainable, even if they aren’t initially, does this have the potential to bring actual change in accepted norms and practices?

“Five years ago, people thought it was crazy for a company to say they would be 100% renewable, and even crazier to say they would commit to reduce emissions in line with 1.5 degrees,” says  Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business. Now it seems like all companies have to at least make a claim about being sustainable and that the bar is being raised higher and higher.

A recent study by Stanford University journal Psychological Science gives weight to the theory of change in the normative landscape. The study demonstrates how people are more likely to change their behavior in response to seeing a significant number of others change theirs. In fact, the authors found that subjects were even willing to make sacrifices and change their behavior when they perceived that a significant amount of others were doing the same.

Applying these findings to the concept of greenwashing reveals that it could be a first step in the right direction. In order to enact real change, it would seem that we need to be bombarded with messages that persuade us that others are changing.

Clearly this is just the first step. If we do not move beyond the rhetoric the entire concept is nothing more than a house of cards. However, this interpretation of greenwashing’s potentially positive effects gives hope that the more companies engage in greenwashing the more they are actually putting pressure on themselves for real change.



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