The climate crisis is here, and companies and institutions are starting to take notice. Across digital retail stores, sustainability policy pages touting net-zero and carbon neutrality are becoming increasingly common. Universities, grocery stores, and hospital systems are making similar pledges. Their promises offer reassurance that, as individuals, we can consume and purchase our way out of the worsening climate crisis.
We cannot. Yet companies and organizations still advertise the idea that their products and services are eco-friendly. This form of advertising, known as “greenwashing,” relies on the desire of buyers to make actionable change. But by shifting focus to the consumer, greenwashing diverts attention away from companies and organizations’ continued environmental harm and from actual effective solutions.
“Rather than wanting to give up any power that they currently hold in this system, they’re trying to also adapt with it and propose solutions, which allow them to continue profiting and continue to do exactly what they’re doing but just rebrand it in a way that seems appealing to people who don’t have the time to put in research to really understand what these things are,” said Anaïs Peterson, the petrochemicals campaigner at Earthworks, a nonprofit that organizes against the harmful effects of mineral and energy development.
What does greenwashing look like
Greenwashing can take many forms, from promises about the sustainability of a company’s manufacturing and shipping to assurances that the company has reached, or will soon reach, carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions. Greenwashed marketing aims to convince consumers and stakeholders that an institution is improving the environment, or at least not harming it further. But these promises have few systems of accountability about whether the company follows through and whether the solutions they offer are effective.
“You can imagine how mousy and obscure some of these carbon offsets really are,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a think tank that researches sustainable policy solutions for Appalachia. “It’s not like there’s any [universally recognized] controlling body.”
A common form of greenwashing is touting carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality. Carbon offsets remove emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses (GHGs) in one location to compensate for an institution’s calculated emissions, often in another geographic region. They can also reduce emissions through funding green infrastructure projects, such as wind power, although those are also typically geographically removed from the source of the pollution.
These offsets often go toward planting trees, which act as carbon sinks that suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In theory, this is helpful since creating more carbon sinks and removing carbon from the atmosphere is necessary to slow the amount of warming. In practice, however, tree-planting initiatives can be even more detrimental to the environment if native trees are not planted or if too many trees are crowded into one area, reducing the likelihood of the trees surviving. And that’s if the trees are planted at all, since there are no regulatory bodies holding carbon offset companies accountable.
“At the end of the day, you have to move beyond buying and selling credits to actually doing the physical work of reducing emissions and or removing carbon from the atmosphere,” O’Leary said. “And one of the risks the use of carbon offsets poses is that it will divert resources [and] money from actual technological changes that are necessary to reduce overall carbon emissions.”
In addition to technological shortcomings, greenwashing can also take the form of rhetorical sleights of hand, such as vague promises about achieving carbon neutrality by a certain year with no concrete, material steps in place to fulfill those promises. When calculating their carbon footprints, institutions may also exclude upstream or downstream emissions, or emissions that are released before or after the company handles the product.
Oil and gas companies, such as BP, often use this kind of rhetoric. BP’s promises of carbon neutrality focus on production and operations rather than the use of their oil, which, since BP was the fourth-largest oil and gas company in 2020 with $180 billion in revenue, will still emit a significant amount of GHGs.
As climate change continues and intensifies, greenwashing will continue to evolve as more “solutions” are pitched as the next silver bullet. One that O’Leary and other environmental activists are concerned about is the greenwashing of hydrogen energy. According to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, hydrogen can produce energy with only water vapor and warm air as byproducts, a stark improvement compared to the 5.26 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels for energy and cement production in the U.S. in 2019.
Hydrogen, however, can be obtained from various sources. While green hydrogen is sourced from water, offering a potentially zero-GHG energy source so long as the electricity used to separate hydrogen from oxygen comes from a renewable source, blue hydrogen is sourced from natural gas, which releases methane to produce. Unfortunately, proponents of blue hydrogen, from Sen. Joe Manchin to White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, often rely on the positive association of hydrogen energy more generally, calling blue hydrogen “clean” and funneling billions into technology that still accelerates the climate crisis.
Another form of technology often pitched as a silver bullet is carbon capture, use, and sequestration (CCUS). Pre- and post-combustion CCUS captures carbon dioxide from power plants, manufacturing, and industrial activities and either sequesters it underground or reuses it for energy or manufacturing purposes.
This technology, despite existing for 40 years, does not yet exist cost-effectively at a commercial scale, risks carbon dioxide leakage when storing, and is sometimes used to extract more oil and gas through enhanced oil recovery. Direct air capture CCUS, which can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than directly from an emitting source, is still entirely developmental. Thus far, every CCUS effort in the power generating sector in Appalachia has ended in failure, yet in 2020 Congress committed $6 billion to CCUS over the next five years.
Government-implemented greenwashing is particularly harmful, since governments have the capital and policy-making power to most significantly improve or worsen the climate crisis. As of 2021, 137 countries have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by the latter half of the century in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, none of the world’s top emitting countries are on track.
What’s so bad about greenwashing
It may be tempting to give corporations and companies a bye for their effort. The climate crisis has become part of the popular consciousness, with stories about “climate doomerism” and climate anxiety abounding, and institutions are reacting accordingly. Compared to debates about whether climate change is even real that dominated public discourse only a decade ago, fueled by talking points from the fossil fuels industry, awareness of the problem seems better than denial.
“The one good thing about greenwashing, in my view, is that we have high awareness of the public,” said Dr. Jing Ming Chen, professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto and fellow of Royal Society of Canada. “Without this awareness, I think greenwashing cannot achieve anything.”
In the best-case scenario, greenwashing solutions such as carbon offsets make a dent in removing emissions through CCUS and the expansion of carbon sinks, which Chen notes have the potential to give us more time to develop, scale, and implement other solutions. However, greenwashing still draws focus and money away from more effective solutions. Even if it reached its potential best and most regulated form, greenwashing would still allow for continued emissions and draw attention and resources away from more impactful solutions.
“It’s not just that people are being fooled and money may be squandered. It’s that those resources that are needed for really effective solutions are being lost,” O’Leary said. “In many ways, especially since we are truly in a race against the clock to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, that may be one of the worst effects of all because we need all hands on deck and all resources on deck to try to make the technological changes necessary.”
As Jane Patton, the plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law, points out, net-zero is not the same as zero emissions. Institutions that purchase carbon offsets still emit carbon dioxide, and while carbon offsets can include other GHGs, the focus on carbon dioxide emissions also often obscures the harm of other GHGs such as methane, which is more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere, as well as particulate matter, which acidifies waterways and causes respiratory issues.
“Carbon offsets are licenses to pollute,” Patton said. “And no company should be seeking a license to pollute.”
Patton lives along a stretch of the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley,” an industrial hub in Louisiana with nearly 150 oil refineries, plastics plants, and chemical facilities. While everyone in the world suffers from climate change, the impacts disproportionately fall on those who live in Cancer Alley and similar corridors, and due to environmental racism, those communities are often disproportionately BIPOC. So long as fossil fuels are used, fossil fuel companies will continue to harm their surrounding communities, whether through the extraction, transport, or burning of fossil fuels.
Greenwashing sells the idea that we can continue to live as we are accustomed to so long as we buy from the right companies and interact with the right institutions. Companies even sell carbon offsets directly to consumers, framing the purchases as a way to “erase” your carbon footprint. Alternatively, some people embrace the idea that, because this is a systemic problem, individuals are free from accountability because their emissions are minuscule relative to the biggest emitters, such as the U.S. military. Both ideas offer mental and emotional comfort despite the rising stakes.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report lays bare the consequences of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, to which the Paris Agreement aspires: biodiversity loss and degradation, risks in physical water availability, food insecurity, droughts, floods, increased pressure from pests and disease, and more. Chen also emphasized that even if we immediately stop all GHG emissions, we will still be locked in to further warming, sea level rise, and worsening natural disasters.
In 2020, 31 million people were displaced due to natural disasters, with impacts disproportionately felt in exploited regions despite the wealthiest 10% of people emitting more than half of global emissions. But while current systems of capitalism, imperialism, and individualism contributed to the crisis—and its inequitable effects—international collaboration and collectivism are necessary to solve it.
“This is a global problem,” Chen said. “It needs all members of the globe to participate, and those who are in power should have the will to act according to the need.”
What can we actually do
While greenwashing makes purchases and actions feel more environmentally friendly than they are, there are still more or less responsible consumer choices that people can make. Buying less and buying locally can help reduce emissions, and, if a person has the money to do so, making their home more energy efficient and switching to an electric vehicle is better than doing nothing. The mindset of consuming our way out of problems, however, is fundamentally flawed because it relies on businesses making changes they are not incentivized to make.
“[Corporations] have no role in building what comes next because their interests lie in preserving the current power structure so that they can profit,” Peterson said. “Their interests are at odds with the rest of our collective survival.”
In our current capitalist system, the goals of consuming less, reusing and repairing items when possible, and buying locally are complicated by the reality of food apartheid, insufficient sustainable public transit infrastructure, and the planned obsolescence of goods ranging from lightbulbs to cellphones. Patton also noted that more sustainable products also tend to be more expensive, barring many from participating in environmentally friendly consumerism.
An individualist, consumerist framework also conceals the reality that the changes necessary to solve the climate crisis require governmental action and funds. Individual actions still matter, but governments must transition from fossil fuels to renewable, sustainable energy sources as soon as possible to prevent further warming. This transition has the potential to create new jobs directly in those energy sectors in addition to cleaning up fossil fuel sites and weathering infrastructure to improve energy efficiency. Such projects are also cost-efficient, able to create significant improvements in employment rates and quality of life on a scale of millions rather than billions spent per localized project.
“Wind power, solar power, energy efficiency, and storage technologies to store energy—those are the four areas where we almost can’t spend too much money at this point to bring them up to scale as quickly as possible,” O’Leary said.
Governments, however, are still made up of people, and those people need to be convinced that these changes are necessary. Climate protests, such as the one that led to the arrests of climate scientists who chained themselves to JP Morgan Chase in downtown Los Angeles, are becoming more common. While the continued use of police and state force to shut down such protests indicates the willingness of the state to defend the status quo that is killing us, these protests and direct actions bring further awareness to specific issues. The LA protest highlighted how JP Morgan Chase’s investments fund the climate crisis, and O’Leary believes such actions can also sway shareholders, who can pressure institutions more directly than the average consumer.
Kaitlyn Joshua, a gulf coast campaigner for Earthworks who also lives in Cancer Alley, noted the potential for such direct actions to act as educational opportunities that organizers can levy into further actions, such as helping people close their accounts with banks that fund the climate crisis.
“When you take a direct action like that, it just further amplifies this education piece around these big banks that we tend to have accounts in,” Joshua said. “And it just gives us another opportunity to further target the very people that are causing us all this demise.”
O’Leary and Patton also emphasize that direct action can come in the form of involvement in local politics, such as attending public service commissions and zoning boards, where many decisions that directly affect communities are made. On a local scale, individuals may have more success contacting representatives and local utility companies to push for measures such as community solar programs, accessing and using weatherization funds, and even regulations for companies’ emissions.
“That’s a world where businesses, you know, they’ve got their law firms, they have their staffs, they have a lot of resources to control what happens in the regulatory state,” O’Leary said. “And it’s one where citizen voices are vastly underheard. So that’s where I would really encourage people to engage because it’s a place where they can make a difference.”
Solving the climate crisis will require radical changes in daily life for many people, but Patton is optimistic that the swell of collective action seen in unionization efforts can be harnessed in the fight against the climate crisis.
“We are bringing folks together to say, you know, enough is enough. Enough with the lies, enough with the greenwashing, enough with the hiding behind the curtain of unnecessary fossil fuels,” Patton said. “We deserve a future, and our children deserve a future. And that future is going to be built on the public good and collective action.”