We interview Guy Pearse about his new book Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams.What is Greenwash about?
The book explores whether the climate-friendly revolution being advertised by the world’s biggest brands is real, and exposes the various ways that brands with rising carbon footprints greenwash the truth. I compared climate-friendly marketing from all over the world with the carbon footprints of the products sold by the brands involved.
What made you decide to write Greenwash?
I usually do my best to avoid advertising, so to deliberately immerse myself in advertising for years was a nauseating prospect. However, as much advertising as I had managed to miss, it was impossible not to notice the explosion in green marketing. Many people are disillusioned about political inaction and some probably see the greening of big business as the only hope; and there’s a widespread assumption that the clean-energy revolution is inevitable, if not already here. I wanted to see whether these hopes were well founded or misplaced – whether the corporate actions behind the revolution being advertised add up to a shrinking carbon footprint, or are likely to any time soon. After all, so much hinges on the answer, and yet, no one seems to ask the question.
What are some of the topics and businesses that you look at in Greenwash?
I’ve tried to cover the things that we spend money on as consumers, the brands we know, and plenty of the ad campaigns with which we’re familiar and by which we have perhaps even been influenced. After lots of whittling down the end result covers around 150 companies and 25 topics. There are a few unexpected categories to keep things interesting too – sex, celebrities, gambling and pets. So hopefully there’s plenty that’s relevant and useful to most people, especially if you’re sick of the political side of climate change.
Greenwash looks at a range of examples of green advertising and marketing, or ‘greenwashing’; what are some of the examples that shocked or surprised you?
There were just so many shocks – from Shell ads showing refinery smokestacks emitting flowers, to appreciating the carbon footprint of Coke’s 10 million coolers and vending machines, to finding that the iPhone 5 has a 66% bigger carbon footprint than the first iPhone 4. Perhaps the biggest shock was just how few good news stories there were among the big brands with the greenest reputations. The real surprise was finding that the brands we know are routinely taking responsibility for only a tiny fraction of the carbon footprint of their products – off-loading everything that’s strictly not under their ‘operational control’. So from farmers growing coffee to contract factories making clothes to freight companies to franchised hotels and fast food stores and those Coke vending machines, the brand involved disowns the carbon footprint of all that stuff. Similarly, when products are sold, whether the company makes cars or jet planes or big-screen televisions, they disown the product-use emissions as well. Even though sales are spiralling, along with all those emissions being off-loaded, the company can greenwash its brand by telling a green story about that tiny slice of the carbon footprint under its ‘operational control’.
In your research for the book, did you come across companies that actually were environmentally responsible in their practices, rather than just using greenwashing to appear to be environmentally friendly?
Quite a few good news stories with smaller businesses, but not many with big brands I’m afraid. Google was one exception – offsetting its annual emissions and investing a billion dollars in renewable energy. Whole Foods Market and Green Mountain Coffee were other US examples of companies doing things on a larger scale. And some companies, like Kraft and Panasonic, are at least being more upfront about all of the emissions tied up with the life-cycle of their products. There are plenty of big brands taking some environmentally friendly steps – whether it’s a big solar panel array at company HQ or hundreds of hybrid or electric vehicles. But in almost every case, the environmental benefit of these conspicuous green initiatives is still a tiny proportion of the company’s energy use, or vehicle fleet, and the benefit is being quietly swamped by other emissions being added due to rising sales.
So where does it leave consumers looking to do their bit?
Hopefully, it leaves them less likely to swallow as much greenwash in future. It doesn’t mean we should stop buying the green product, or demonise business – especially not the companies I’ve focussed on, many of which are at the greener end of a pretty drab spectrum. Just imagine what those that couldn’t be bothered with greening the brand image are doing. What all this does mean is that we face a choice – either we get realistic about the emissions track that big brands are on, and the consequences, or we coast along believing that cheering on a revolution somehow makes it happen. As part of that reality check we need to understand that companies face a truly daunting task in reducing their overall carbon footprints whilst also meeting the exploding global demand for goods and services – and they can only move so far and remain competitive when consumers are not shopping the planet green in large enough numbers, and when governments are so reluctant to force their competition to move in the same direction at the same time. So, as much as it we might be sick of the politics, this reinforces why it ultimately matters.
Greenwash is available now in all good bookstores.