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Greenwashing Dirty Business

by Asmara Pelupessy

Sometimes the projects are forced on the company by regulators because of violations, as in the case of Chevron
The shot opens with a troop of tiny sea turtles moving along the sand towards the full moon's glow on the ocean. "In a race to survive, instinct and moonlight guide newborn sea turtles," a somber narrator intones. "Do people make certain that the only light visible is the one that leads home? People Do."

Sounds like a generic nature special, right? But actually this is an ad -- for Chevron oil company. The ad goes on to explain how Chevron is saving the turtles by concealing light from nearby oil and gas operations so they can make it to the water. The message is clear: Chevron is a defender of the environment, a champion of endangered species, a lovable, eco-friendly corporation saving the infants of the animal kingdom.

If you believe hype like the People Do campaign, it may seem that some of the largest and most environmentally destructive corporations in the world are going green. Have environmental initiatives like Earth Day 2000 inspired a shift in their practices? The answer is "no," but corporations are willing to spend millions for you to think "yes." Especially in the climate of Earth Day's 30th anniversary, these companies have been intensifying efforts to hide their destructive environmental records behind eco-friendly rhetoric. This is the art of greenwash.

Greenwash is a response to consumers' growing interests in corporate responsibility and environmental effects. Since the environmental movement became a serious public presence at the first Earth Day in 1970, corporations have sought to divert consumers from their harmful effects on the planet. And with good reason -- a 1999 Cone/Roper survey found that Americans are more likely to do business with companies which support causes like environmental protection. But rather than getting to the root of the problems -- say, by transitioning oil and coal plants to solar power facilities -- these corporations use expensive ad campaigns and publicity stunts to give consumers false impressions of their environmental impacts.

To recognize and expose greenwash, Earth Day 2000, the Los Angeles-based organization, recently released their annual Don't Be Fooled Awards -- a top ten list of the worst greenwashing companies of the past year. To pick the top ten greenwashers, Earth Day staffers compiled one list of corporate environmental advertising campaigns and another list of corporations that were fined or sued or rebuked for violating environmental law. The top ten companies that showed up in both lists were picked as this year's winners.

"The goal in producing the annual 'Don't Be Fooled' report," says Jill Johnson, a Campaign Organizer for Earth Day 2000, "is to inform as many consumers as possible that some corporations, many of them household names, are not being 100 percent forthcoming about their impact and that of their products and packaging on the environment. We know that corporations spend millions of dollars in advertising to give themselves the best image possible, but that's all it is. An image."

Josh Karliner, the executive director of the Transnational Resource & Action Center, explains that greenwash campaigns are effective because they focus on a specific and powerful target audiences. Karliner explains, "Greenwash campaigns target decision makers -- regulators, public figures and politicians -- and the constituencies that will influence decision makers." Often greenwash advertisements are run in the areas where a company operates a dangerous factory or waste site to persuade local citizens and government that they needn't worry. Greenwash advertising is also strategically aired in Washington DC, to influence lobbyists, politicians and other people involved with legislative decisions.

A common form of greenwash consists of the company boasting about its environmental projects -- how many acres of forest they've preserved, the studies they have funded and so on. But deeper analysis often reveals these projects to be less than the voluntary sparkling green efforts companies claim. Sometimes the projects are forced on the company by regulators because of violations, as in the case of Chevron, several of whose projects are required by local laws. Also, comparisons of project versus advertising costs are often a clear indication of an insincere greenwash campaign. If ads and air time cost as much or more than the project itself, you can bet that the company's motivations are less than green.

There have been many efforts to end corporate greenwash. In 1990, a first step was made when a task force of ten attorney generals released "The Green Report." The attorney generals recognized that greenwash was making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between legitimate environmental claims and misleading product labels, such as "eco-safe" and "earth smart." The Green Report motivated some agencies to try to regulate misleading environmental claims. In 1992 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a series of guidelines for environmental product claims for business. These "Green Guides" were completed in 1998 (they can be found at However, the FTC admits that "the guidelines are not, themselves, legally enforceable, but are administrative guidelines for present FTC laws on overall marketing claims". In other words, the FTC will contact companies that do not follow the guidelines, but the products remain on the shelves for months until the existing supply is depleted. Johnson explains, "The most that the FTC can do is make recommendations to companies. There are Green Guide laws in California, but we're really pushing for national regulation." So the company continues to profit off misled consumers even while under investigation.

According to Wendy Wendlandt, the president of Earth Day 2000, while the Green Guides have led to less abuse on a product level, greenwashing is increasing in television and print advertising. Hopefully, however, growing consumer awareness will offer considerable opposition to deceptive greenwash campaigns. "The recent inclusion of the term, 'greenwash,' in the 10th Edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary indicates the permanence and significance of the situation," says Johnson. "Most people who have some concern about the state of the environment are aware of environmental greenwashing. They know that individuals are not the only ones affecting the environment. Though there are fewer corporations than humans on the Earth, the corporations have a much larger impact on the state of the environment."

The Don't Be Fooled Awards not only highlight some of the worst greenwashers to look out for, but also serve as recognition of the fact that the public is not going to continue to be misled. Until legal regulations reign in corporate environmental advertising, it will be up to consumers to regulate greenwashers ourselves through increased analysis and exposure. So, without further ado, the 2000 Don't Be Fooled Awards go to...

Pacific Gas & Electric
If you live on the West Coast, you might have seen the recent slew of magazine ads from PG&E explaining how they are meeting increasing energy needs with "technology that respects Mother Nature." One ad features black and white images of power transformers beside giant redwood trees. The caption reads, "Is there room for both of them to grow?" Another shows tire tracks parallel to bird tracks and asks, "Who has the right of way?"

Earth Day 2000 speculates that, more likely than not, these ads are an attempt to buffer the reaction to the real story made famous by the recently released movie "Erin Brockovich." Erin Brockovich tells the story of how for years, PG&E used the chemical chromium VI, a known human carcinogen, in its California water towers. The chromium ended up seeping into and contaminating the groundwater in small California towns, ending up in wells used for everyday activities like bathing and drinking. As an outcome, hundreds suffered from unusual nosebleeds and many communities developed dramatically high rates of cancer -- sad proof that PG&E has not operated in harmony with nature or with the basic health of its own customers.

Coca-Cola Company
Coca-Cola has been a primary sponsor of a national American Recycles Day for the last three years. America Recycles Day urges people to buy recycled goods and boasts millions of participants. On behalf of the event's sponsors and organizers, local politicians in towns across the nation have signed proclamations declaring November 15th as America Recycles Day. Unfortunately however, Coca-Cola itself has not lived up to what it vigorously promotes.

In 1990, Coke announced a new program to use recycled content in its plastic soda bottles and applied for FDA approval of a new bottle which would contain 25 percent recycled material. They were granted approval and claimed that the new package met the company's standards for consumer safety and environmental impact. But in 1994 Coke quietly abandoned the program, claiming that it was not "economically sustainable." The real reason most likely rests on the fact that the company was no longer threatened by bottle bill legislation, asserts Earth Day 2000. Consequentially, recycling rates for plastic soda bottles plunged and millions of plastic bottles continue to add to our landfills every year.

Nuclear Energy Institute
The Nuclear Energy Institute is a lobbying group promoting nuclear energy, funded by 42 American utility companies. NEI's advertising has promoted nuclear energy as "environmentally clean" -- asserting that nuclear plants are the largest energy source that produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

Recently, a coalition of groups which includes the Better Business Bureau and Public Citizen, filed complaints with the FTC against NEI for this misleading campaign. Nuclear industry documents back the complaints and reveal NEI's claims to be bogus. Approximately 10 metric tons of carbon, a leading greenhouse gas, are emitted every year to create enough fuel for a single nuclear plant. Other considerations include highly irradiated nuclear waste, species destruction, thermal water emissions and storage. Nuclear waste remains toxic for 240,000 years and radioactive for more than a million years. Yet, federal officials have yet to agree on a permanent storage site for 85,000 metric tons of waste. The persistent radioactivity of this waste is equivalent to 2.3 million Hiroshima bombs.

The FTC concluded that the NEI has been guilty of falsely implying that nuclear energy is "environmentally clean" and supplies electricity "without polluting." However, the agency hasn't taken further action, for fear that they lack the jurisdiction necessary for a formal proceeding.

Wyerhauser is a giant in the lumber industry -- the world's largest private owner of timber, the world's largest producer of lumber and a major importer of tropical wood. This company has been clearcutting forests for over a century, producing everything from timber to paper packaging. But in a public relations campaign which includes television, radio and print ads, Weyerhaeuser is painting themselves green, boasting about "replacing natural resources" by planting 40 million seedlings so we will "never run out of trees."

But how many of those little seedlings make it to maturity and replace the old-growth forests that Weyerhaeuser is cutting down? It's anyone's guess. On their Web site, Weyerhaeuser explains that clearcutting serves sustainability and biology. Through twisted logic they claim that this is a beneficial process exposing trees to needed sunlight. But at what cost do the trees get some more sun? This company has clearcut 4 million acres since 1990 -- clearly not a green practice.

Mobil Oil
Mobil is one of the world's most notorious greenwashers. They receive the award this year for their weekly commentaries on the editorial page of the New York Times. With titles like "Helping Earth breathe easier," the commentaries focus on various company environmental policies which range from financial support for environmental groups planting trees to promoting diesel fuel. The ads fail to mention any steps that Mobil is taking to tackle the global climate crisis -- the reason being that Mobil has done absolutely nothing concerning the real roots of the crisis.

On the contrary, Mobil have continued to expand its exploration and drilling practices. The EPA reports that Mobil is responsible for the release and transfer of 10.5 million pounds of toxins and 231 million pounds of waste in the U.S. in 1997 alone. Seven million pounds of toxins were spewed directly into our air and nearly half of these were emitted from a single refinery in Texas. Additionally, Mobil remains a key member of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry-funded group which has spent more than $63 million to oppose sensible global warming policies in Congress.

One of the most discussed issues of late has been genetically engineered (GE) foods, products that Monsanto has continued to claim are environmentally advantageous. Their Web site claims that genetically engineered foods "benefit the environment in several ways. Crops can be produced with fewer pesticides while increasing a crop's own ability to fight pests and diseases. These new crops encourage farming techniques that preserve precious topsoil, reduce soil erosion and runoff into streams and rivers, and even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These farming techniques will also provide increases in food production with our limited farmlands."

But Monsanto isn't telling the full story. In May 1999 Cornell University researchers published a study in the journal Nature which revealed that the gene-altering toxin now found in more than 25 percent of the U.S. corn crop kills butterfly larvae. Further research has found that Monsanto's GE soybeans produce lower yields than non-engineered varieties, and that toxins derived from GE corn remain active in the soil for months and may affect humans. Both scientists and environmentalists fear that the growing popularity of GE foods in America has preceded Monsanto's proper testing and analysis of ecological outcomes.

Chevron's "People Do" advertisements, running since 1985, are a textbook example of a successful greenwashing campaign. Polls which Chevron conducted in California two years after the start of the campaign showed that Chevron was the oil company which people trusted the most to protect the environment. Among those who viewed the ads, sales increased by 10 percent, while among the environmentally concerned target audience, sales jumped by 22 percent.

People Do can be criticized on several levels. For one, Chevron is spending more money on advertising its projects than it is on maintaining them. The butterfly preserve project at the El Segundo refinery in California, for example, costs the company $5,000 a year to run. But producing a 30 second advertisement about the preserve may cost $200,000. And production costs do not account for the millions Chevron spends on magazine space and TV airtime. Furthermore, the ads suggest that Chevron is voluntarily sponsoring these projects, when many of them are actually mandated by local and state laws.

According to EPA data, in the last 30 years Chevron has been fined millions of dollars for plant explosions, illegal air pollution, improper hazardous waste disposal and needlessly exposing minority neighborhoods to dangerous chemicals and waste. In 1997 Chevron was slapped with a $1.2 million fine for operating off the California coast without the required pollution prevention features. This was one of the largest fines levied on any oil company since 1970, when Chevron was fined for a similar offense. People Do care about the earth, but Chevron has clearly demonstrated that it does not.

Du Pont
Du Pont's latest ad campaign begins with a few green mountaintops accompanied by the phrase, "To Do List for the Planet." The tasks include "Turn ocean water into drinking water," "Make food grow where food can't grow" and end with a tagline which reads, "The Miracles of Science." It may sound good, but as the world's largest chemical company, Du Pont is a top emitter of toxins in the country -- about 1 million pounds each day. Du Pont remains the world's largest producer of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and continues to sell environmentally destructive leaded gas overseas. As the operator of the Savannah River nuclear weapons complex, Du Pont has endangered human lives by polluting water sources for almost 40 years. This pollution has been linked to elevated levels of leukemia, lung cancer and other diseases. Du Pont may need to make a To Do list for themselves and clean up their own act before trying to rework nature.

BP Amoco
According to Earth Day 2000, of all the oil giants, BP Amoco has worked the hardest to craft an environmentally sensitive image. Last March, BP bought a solar energy company called Solarex and thereby became the largest solar company in the world. A week later they announced their "Plug in the Sun" program and promised to "Fill [us] up by sunshine," by installing solar panels on 200 BP stations worldwide.

While the use of solar energy is undoubtedly positive, for BP it merely serves as a distraction from the fact that the company's bread and butter is fossil fuels. BP fills us up with gasoline, not sunshine -- and gasoline is a leading cause of global warming. Additionally, the numbers don't add up -- for every $100 BP Amoco spends on oil exploration and development, a mere 16 cents is spent on solar energy. Now the corporation is lobbying to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of last wilderness areas in Alaska and home to threatened wildlife and indigenous people. The oil supplies are estimated to last only six months, yet BP Amoco pushes on.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines
Royal Caribbean's ads offers stunning natural views and spectacular settings. Their Web site accordingly boasts of strong environmental policies and principles called "Save the Waves." But their image and actual record are leagues apart.

In 1999 Royal Caribbean plead guilty to 21 felony counts and agreed to pay $18 million for dumping waste oil and hazardous chemicals in U.S. waters, rather than disposing of them properly at port. Attorney General Janet Reno stated, "Royal Caribbean used our nation's waters as its dumping ground, even as it promoted itself as an environmentally 'green' company."

Royal Caribbean also admitted to lying to the Coast Guard about their activities through falsification of logbooks and disposal of the bypass pipes used for dumping. It would be to the benefit of Royal Caribbean if they truly made a commitment to "save the waves" -- after all, the natural splendor they've polluted is one of their biggest selling points.

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Albion Monitor April 22, 2000 (

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