by Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Pedagogy & Media, DLINQ

My interest in greenwashing was piqued by an episode of On the Media that I heard on NPR driving home from work one day in the fall. The Birth of Climate Disinformation told the story of Herb Schmertz, PR for Mobil through the 70s and 80s, who invented the term “advertorial” and “issue advertising.” Over the years, these new approaches to advertising became more and more central to corporate advertising strategy; and today, as a guest on the On the Media episode put it, “You’d think all they do is farm algae and research carbon capture and worry about climate change if you only paid attention to their ads.” I know this will not be news to environmental activists, but I was gobsmacked, as I had assumed that a company’s advertising strategy would be to sell both its product and its image. In this case, the advertising was selling primarily (or only) its image. Indeed, The On the Media episode argues that the goal of the print advertorial was to allow Mobil to tell a different “side of the story” – their side of the story – primarily in order to influence policy and to reframe the way that policymakers and the public view energy companies.

As I pondered the legacy of Herb Schmertz, I found myself wanting to know more about greenwashing, and – given DLINQ’s interest in mis/disinformation – what greenwashing looks like in the era of social media. The rest of this post will be organized as a Q&A, ending with suggestions for how to recognize and push back against greenwashing.

What does greenwashing look like in the age of social media?

The print advertorial was very successful, according to Mobil’s internal marking report from 1982: “our analysis shows that the Times has altered or significantly softened its viewpoints on conservation, moving from a total reliance on conservation to advocating increased production incentives to solve the supply shortage on monopoly and divestiture” (as quoted in the On the Media piece). Fossil fuel companies continue to use print media and social media to spread climate disinformation. However, in their article, Lyon and Montgomery (2013) argue that the social media environment is significantly different from the print ad environment, given that social media allows for two-way communication: the ability to respond to, and discuss, posts, providing an opportunity for social media users to call out corporate misbehavior. Interestingly, researchers point out that attempts at greenwashing via social media may even backfire due to the ability to more closely scrutinize and monitor claims made on social media. Environmental activists employ a strategy, which they call “greentrolling,” to push back against greenwashing. Lyon and Montgomery call this phenomenon “tweetjacking,” which occurs by “turning the “tweets” of others to one’s own purposes.”

At the same time, while there is a robust literature on the perceptions of information credibility on social media, there is relatively little research exploring “how tweet characteristics influence engagement as it applies to corporate sustainability, digital activism and perceptions around greenwashing and authenticity” (Nguyen, 2020, p. 8).  This seems like an area ripe for additional research, to better understand the mechanisms by which greenwashing is either taken up, or rejected, by social media users – and, whether greentrolling or tweetjacking has an impact on corporate marketing strategy or practice.

What are the impacts of greenwashing?

While there is an increasing demand for green products (sales of products labeled as sustainable were up 29% in 2018 as compared to 2013), reports from the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network and the European Trade commission found that “almost half of all businesses claiming to be sustainable (and likely charging a higher price because of it) were either lying or lacked clear evidence to support this classification.” An article in the Berkeley Economic Review points to the financial cost for consumers of believing false claims; because green products cost more than conventional products, people who purchase products that claim to be green but have no benefit to the environment are also spending more money to do so.

In my reading, another thing that struck me as quite problematic is the way in which corporate greenwashing reduces the trustworthiness of the green efforts made by all companies, including those committed to actually reducing environmental harm. As Claudette Juska, of Greenpeace, says, “I think in general people have become skeptical of any environmental claims. They don’t know what’s valid and what isn’t, so they disregard most of them” (in Green Washing: Do You Know What You’re Buying? by Richard Dahl).  Writing in the Washington Post, Taylor Telford emphasizes that climate misinformation “messes with public understanding of climate change, polarizes the public, reinforces climate silence and lowers support for climate action.”

What is being done about greenwashing?

In addition to greentrolling by environmental activists, and other forms of activist action, the push back against greenwashing has primarily occurred in the legal and regulatory contexts. The State of Massachusetts recently filed a lawsuit alleging that ExxonMobil has for years intentionally misled consumers; similar lawsuits have been filed by 20 other US states. Companies from many industries, from clothing to transportation to cosmetics, have recently been sued for misrepresenting their environmental practices.

In the United States, one avenue of regulatory responsibility falls with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates labeling and marketing of green products under 16 CFR Part 260. The FTC’s Green Guide provides a resource for companies to operationalize the regulation; the guide boils down “how truth-in-advertising principles apply to green marketing and highlights terms often used in environmental ads.” While the Green Guide was last updated in 2012, it is on the schedule to be updated in 2022, and environmental advocates are hoping the update will go further to address greenwashing in the social media era.The FTC may enforce claims against companies alleged to be in violation of the guidelines, and has done so in the past, for example “charging three companies with false and unsupportable claims that a variety of paper plates, wipes, and towels were biodegradable” (Dahl, 2010). In 2021, environmental groups filed a complaint with the FTC accusing Chevron of deceptive advertising practices.

In addition to the FTC, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recognizes that environmental claims can significantly impact companies’ value, and has also begun to regulate the ways that companies formally make these claims in their disclosures. In March 2021, the SEC created the Climate and Environmental, Societal, Governance task force, and the National Law Review predicts a significant increase in 2022 of SEC scrutiny and regulatory action related to ESG disclosures.

Take Action

Outside of suing companies or filing regulatory complaints, you can take action by identifying and combating climate disinformation in your own lives (and social media feeds).

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