For years, polluters’ claims that they were the biggest friends of the environment have made for hilariously contradictory ad campaigns. Hilarious in the sense that you had to laugh to avoid crying.
The very existance of greenwash marketing underpins the guerilla theater of that merry band of pranksters known as the Yes Men. (You can read my story about them in my archives.) If not for the tradition of company spokespeople getting on cable TV to tell us with a straight face that poison is healthy and dirty is clean, how else could the Yes Men pull off stunts where they pretend to be corporate officials offering mea culpas and unveiling revolutionary initiatives?
So today, let us celebrate that indomitable part of the human spirit that allows us to take a message seriously simply because it’s delivered with a sincere smile, soothing music and pleasant images — even when what we are being told is total bunk. The following five examples aren’t all technically greenwashing, but they at least fit into the category of “stranger than something the Yes Men” would do.
I’d love for you to add your favorite examples to the list in the comments section at the end of this article.
Fur is Green
From the Great White North comes the message of the Fur Council of Canada: “Fur is Green.”
“Like leather, suede and shearling,” the council says, “fur is a natural product, a true gift of nature.” Never mind that it’s a gift delivered to us from the teeth of a trap and the end of a bludgeoning club.
As part of its “fur is Green” campaign, the council explains that trappers are actually the ones who believe in animal welfare. It accuses animal rights groups of “‘staging’ horrible videos to fuel their fund-raising drives.” And according to the council, “Fur is ecological,” too!
My favorite part of the “fur is green” campaign is an ad headlined “environmental activist” with a photo of a gorgeous model — all rosy cheeked and red nosed — sitting on a snowy tree limb and draped in a fur hat, mittens and a scarf. “Because they depend on nature for their livelihoods, trappers have a direct interest in protecting our forests and rivers,” the ad says. “For those of us who live in cities, they are our ‘eyes and ears’ on the land.”
There’s truth in the idea that an industry that depends on nature has an interest in ecological stewardship. On the other hand, most fur harvesting nowadays comes from fur farms — not particularly a place I’m planning to take my eyes and ears soon.
For sheer moxie, you gotta admit that the “Fur is Green” campaign has a stranger-than-fiction quality to it.
Greening of Oil magazine
As MNN blogger Jim Motavalli notes, Greening of Oil magazine may be a good thing. It’s an industry-based online publication dedicated to reporting “what is being done to make natural gas, oil and coal more earth-friendly energy sources during what is expected to be a decades-long shift to cleaner and cleaner power.”
So Greening of Oil’s mission may indeed represent progress, because so much of the fossil fuels industry is in a denial about the shift. And the journalism itself seems credible.
That’s actually what makes Greening of Oil’s very existence sound like something the Yes Men would make up. It’s so reasonable yet daunting for oil and coal companies to grapple head-on with their environmental problems that you’d expect them to stick their collective heads in the tar sands instead.
BP really had us going for a while. In 2001, the oil giant announced that its name no longer stood for “British Petroleum”; it means “Beyond Petroleum” nowadays.
That alone was a classic truth-is-stranger-than-the-Yes-Men moment: Declaring passé the highly polluting product upon which its fortune was founded was the essence of corporate responsibility in the face of a reflexive defense of short-term profits.
Better yet, the company actually seemed to be putting its money where its mouth was. It acknowledged that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change, withdrew support for the industry front-group Globate Climate Coalition, and began a whole set of initiatives designed to shift BP away from oil and toward a more broadly defined mission as an energy purveyor for vehicles. The company put a big emphasis on hydrogen and biofuels. It began to power many of its stations with solar and wind energy.
The marketing blitz seemed to work. Consumers now view BP as the greenest of oil companies. Sales rose dramatically, for a while at least.
Then three things happened: A series of nasty environmental violations struck BP refineries and pipeline projects. The recession put pressure on any company that was out on an innovative limb (especially if it was an oil company at the time of record oil prices). And a new CEO, who didn’t own the whole “Beyond” thing, arrived at BP.
Last year — with the shrinking of its alternative fuels division and a cover story to make it seem as if that change was good thing — Beyond Petroleum seemed to cross the threshold from a sincere effort to a masterful, giant, multiyear greenwash.
There’s a bit of the scorpion and the frog in this fable. What did you expect from a company that only gets 1 percent of its revenue from alternative sources and holds more oil and gas reserves than anyone not named ExxonMobil?
Monsanto’s “sustainable agriculture” pledge
The St. Louis-based genetically modified seed colossus has clashed for years with farmers and sustainable farming advocates over everything from pesticides to its aggressive approach toward defending its seed patents.
Easy solution: Grab words like “sustainability” and “conserve” for your very own.
The company even held a Sustainability Management 2009 conference last year. Tagline: “Water. Land. Energy.” Theme: “How does agriculture become part of an initiative to help produce more, while conserving more?”
The basic message is that Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds are more efficient at producing food for billions of people. So why should critics of the company be the ones using the words “sustainability” and “conservation?”
Each ad in a Monsanto campaign on the subject ends with the following message: “Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers' lives. That sustainable agriculture. And that’s what Monsanto is all about.” How positively Rovian on the chutzpah meter.
Monsanto is a bit less bold in trumpeting its conflicts with farmers and sustainable farming advocates. Not surprisingly, the ads don’t mention that Monsanto has sued at least 150 farmers for using its genetically modified seed (even when the Monsanto seed simply blew into the farmers’ fields). Or that a Monsanto front group has been lobbying hard to prevent milk from cows treated with its growth hormones from having to be labeled in stores. Or that the company was fined for false advertising a couple of years ago in France after claiming that their Roundup product, the world’s most popular pesticide, was “biodegradable.”
Edison Electric Institute
The trade group for big power companies expressed deep concern last week about the Federal Trade Commission’s plans to regulate greenwashing.
Wouldn’t you be concerned about that if you represented the industry that produces the most greenhouse gases, as well as the most creative ads heralding the industry’s environmental stewardship?
Whether it was the American Electric Corporation patting itself on the back for investing in less polluting equipment (when it only did so as part of a settlement for allowing too much pollution from its power plants) or an industry consortium advertising that clean coal is the solution to climate change, power companies spend a lot of money trying to convince us that they are the reason our world is so beautiful.
So the Edison Electric Institute wrote the FTC recently to warn that regulating greenwashing might lead the agency into a “conceptual thicket” where it would have to decide which industry efforts deserve to be lauded as green and which don’t.
I have a simpler solution than fighting the FTC. It would be truly in the vein of the Yes Men. Just convince companies to announce that they're taking significant steps to help the environment — and then convince them to actually take those steps.
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