Sierra Club

Sierra Magazine


Greenwash, Inc.

by Kenny Bruno

You've seen the ads. Lush green forests. Humpback whales breaching. Stunning birds of prey in flight. All beautifully reproduced. But something is a little off. Somewhere on the page, on the corner of the television screen, or at the back of the brochure, you discover that this is not by the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. Instead, you see a tagline for a chemical or oil corporation. You've just experienced greenwash.

Greenwashing may sound so preposterous it's hard to believe anyone would fall for it. But thanks to slick advertising and media efforts-reinforced with numbing repetition- people now associate environmental images with corporate polluters. A few years after Chevron began its "People Do" campaign, the multinational's polling found that Chevron was the oil company Californians considered most likely to protect the environment. Not so fast: In 1993, Greenpeace found that Chevron is a major contributor to political groups whose aim is to relax environmental regulations. Here are a few types of greenwashing you should watch for:

Seducing you with beauty: The simplest form of greenwash is the environmental-image advertisement. Here a company name, like Dow Chemical, or a product, such as a gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicle, is presented in a gorgeous setting. No specific environmental claims are made, but the advertisers hope the ad will create a subconscious link between their company and natural beauty.

Impressing you with tangential environmental projects: Here the company gets more specific. It talks about how many acres of wetlands it preserves, the biodiversity studies it funds, or the endangered species that roost on its properties. For example, a Phillips Petroleum ad with a lovely photo of foraging shorebirds touts the oil giant's contribution to a wetlands restoration effort. Often it turns out that the do-good projects were forced on the company by regulators. In some cases, the cost of the project is less than the cost of the ads to publicize it.

Distracting you with incremental advances: Sometimes a company will call attention to its improved safety record, reduced pollution, or new energy-efficient facilities. These steps are commendable, but cover up the destructiveness of the company's core business. With the hook "Shouldn't something built to take you where the air is fresh leave some fresh air for the rest of us?", Ford tells us that its SUVs qualify as low-emission vehicles. That's true, but the EPA rating the carmaker relies on does not consider carbon dioxide, the primary global-warming culprit. A Ford Excursion emits nearly three times more CO2 than the Honda Civic HX.

Gaining sympathy by adopting environmentalists' lingo: Some companies employ PR firms so skilled at co-opting environmental rhetoric you'd think they invented it. A manufacturer that uses toxic chemicals might call its process "pollution prevention," without telling you it has redefined the phrase to include toxic-waste incineration. After Rainforest Action Network christened its alternative-energy campaign "Beyond Oil," BP countered with a tagline of its own, saying its acronym stands for "Beyond Petroleum." When reading these ads, keep in mind a company's core product: Less than one percent of BP's investment is in renewable energy.

Avoiding regulation by claiming businesses will solve problems themselves: A common form of greenwash is to publicly claim a commitment to the environment while quietly lobbying to avoid regulation. If the company suggests "self-regulation," its public image-making is probably greenwash. While ExxonMobil's "Promise of Technology" ads praise technology that can avert global warming, the multinational (a member of the Global Climate Coalition, the industry group formed to oppose the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) lectures us that "markets-not politicians-will inevitably decide which products are successful." ExxonMobil doesn't mind the huge subsidies it gets from those politicians, however.

Feigning concern for the world's poor: Many corporations violate human rights around the world. To polish their image, they sloganeer about anti-poverty programs, economic development, and human rights. Oil, tobacco, and bioengineered-food companies all engage in this new shade of greenwash. For example, in an ad that tries to counter allegations of human-rights violations in Nigeria, Shell presents the image of an African woman behind the oil company's logo and asks, "None of our business . . . or the heart of our business?"

Anytime you come across a slick ad that doesn't try to convince you to purchase something, ask yourself what it is trying to get you to buy. Often, it's a favorable impression of the sponsoring corporation, one that just might have high environmental costs down the road.

World on the Web

Endless Bummer

by Mike Papciak

Surf's up. And rising. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of hundreds of scientists convened by the United Nations, sea level could rise about 34 inches this century thanks to global warming. Tens of millions of people inhabiting coastal and lowland areas may be poling gondolas where they once walked. Here's where you can go to learn still more about climate change:

  • The EPA's global-warming site, is an excellent starting point, offering a wealth of information in easily navigable categories, with special sections for kids, coastal residents, and health professionals. The site's "Uncertainties" page provides a cool-headed summary of what's known, what's likely but not empirical, and what's unknown about the issue.
  • Ross Gelbspan's "Heat Is Online" contains a thorough and impassioned rundown of the many facets of global warming. He provides detailed information about its effects on weather, disease, and oceans and other ecosystems, along with a scary record of extreme weather events since 1995. Of particular interest are Gelbspan's "Disinformation," wherein he tackles some of the doubters' arguments one by one, and his "Solutions." (See "A Modest Proposal to Stop Global Warming.")
  • The Sierra Club Web site offers a plethora of global-warming information, including the "Clean Energy" pages, which explore the benefits of wind and solar power over greenhouse-gas-producing fuels. Also presented is the Club's report "Driving Up the Heat," an expos‚ of sport-utility vehicles' contribution to global meltdown.
  • And, finally, if you'd like to keep tabs on the global-warming skeptics, check out the Greening Earth Society, a group funded and housed by the Western Fuels Association, which believes that CO2 is beneficial and works to prevent "dangerous human interference" with climate.
  • Books

    Tropical Times

    Greenhouse: The 200-Year History of Global Warming by Gale E. Christianson (Greystone Books, $19.95)

    The sudden detection of a continent-size hole in the ozone layer-which shields the world against dangerous ultraviolet radiation-threw scientists into a panic in 1985. The Reagan administration's solution was to suggest that we need only wear sunglasses and apply sunscreen. That president's cluelessness is, unfortunately, a typical reaction to the problem of human-induced environmental degradation, says Gale Christianson, historian and author of biographies of Isaac Newton and Edwin Hubble.

    Ozone depletion is only the latest event in the 200-year history of human alteration of the atmosphere. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Christianson writes, the effects of fuel combustion were so great we managed to alter genetic structures. In pre-revolution times the English moth Biston belularia had natural camouflage of irregular black spots on its light gray wings and body. During the 1860s, however, a scientist noted that the insect had evolved to solid black to conceal itself in a landscape darkened by the 50 tons of soot that fell yearly on Manchester. He named the new creature, appropriately, Biston carbonia.

    Deftly blending such intriguing stories from history and science, Christianson shows how carbon dioxide, the devil child of progress, became the main culprit in the unfolding drama of global warming. Tracing the 30 percent increase in CO2 in the last 150 years, he leaves no doubt about the causes of rising temperatures and the catastrophes they have already brought on: proliferation of disease-carrying insects, flooding of populated areas by rising seas, scarcity of potable water, severe weather patterns, and species extinction.

    Some progress is being made, however. A number of industry giants, including Whirlpool, 3M, Toyota, Sunoco, and Lockheed Martin have acknowledged the problem, joining the Pew Center for Global Climate Change in declaring their agreement with scientific findings and insisting that action must be taken.

    And, although CO2 continues to waft into the atmosphere, Christianson says, past successes do give hope. After all, in today's clearer air around Manchester, the dark moths quietly morphed back into light ones.--Reviewed by Rebecca Shotwell

    Beating the Heat: Why and How We Must Combat Global Warming by John J. Berger (Berkeley Hills Books, $10)

    Half the glacial ice in the Alps has melted in the past century, the sea has risen half a foot, and the temperature in the Antarctic Peninsula has gone up three degrees since the 1940s. Global warming, the cause of these dramatic changes, may also have stirred up increasingly violent weather: more extreme El Niño cycles in the Pacific and a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic. Along with these meteorological outbursts comes a quiet hazard: the migration of malarial and other disease-carrying insects to areas once too cold for infestation.

    Ignoring all this, we turn up the heat, burning enough fuel to generate 22 tons of global warming gases per person per year, says John J. Berger, environmental consultant and author of Charging Ahead: The Business of Renewable Energy and What It Means for America. One cause of the denial, he says, is that "the coal and oil industries and some of their largest customers are conducting a sophisticated multimillion-dollar campaign to convince the public that climate change is not a serious threat."

    Berger shatters various myths, such as the one that reduced fuel consumption would ruin the economy. Not so, he says, citing a Department of Energy study that shows that paring energy use to 1990's level would cause no economic loss and a Tellus Institute report that devising technology to cut emissions by just 15 percent would actually create 800,000 new jobs by 2010.

    Berger's clear presentation of the evidence of the causes of global warming is balanced with a concise, practical account of what we must do to slow it down. This includes solutions, both personal and political, with 17 energy-saving tips and a resource list to help crank up the campaign for a rational energy policy.--Reviewed by Bob Schildgen


  • A Feathered Family: Nature Notes From a Woodland Studio by Linda Johns. A bird rescuer and artist's affectionate stories of the birds she lives among.
  • The Lost River: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Transformation on Wild Water by Richard Bangs. A famed adventurer tells of his daring expedition on Ethiopia's Tekeze River. Now in paperback.
  • The Stations of Still Creek by Barbara J. Scot. Set in the forests around Mt. Hood, a moving reflection on personal crisis and nature's healing power. Now in paperback.
  • Videos

    Unconquering the Last Frontier by Robert Lundahl; Evolution Film, (415) 543-3155;

    The Elwha River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula once produced a run of magnificent 100-pound king salmon. But early in the 20th century, two dams cut off all but five miles of the river from spawning fish. Today those big kings are just the stuff of legends. Unconquering the Last Frontier chronicles the movement to dislodge those dams and restore the Elwha to some semblance of its former glory. Narrated by Native American actor Gary Farmer, the film highlights the injustices done to the Lower Elwha Klallam people who relied on the salmon for sustenance, both physical and spiritual, and who paid the price for the dams' cheap electricity. --Reviewed by Patrick Josephn.

    Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (415) 977-5600, through our Web site, or by writing the store at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.

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