Tuesday, 15 January 2013

GREENWASH: Big Brands and Carbon Scams by GUY PEARSE

GREENWASH: Big Brands and Carbon Scams
Black Inc., 2012, 264 pages, $29.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The response of big business to global warming, their propaganda would have us believe, is to ride to the rescue by reducing their carbon emissions.  As Guy Pearse shows in Greenwash, however, this is just a marketing ploy to attract the dollars of the environmentally-concerned customer.

Techniques for slapping on the green veneer include the cost-free chart-toppers of green rhetoric, slogans, logos and name changes  – the oil company, BP, for example, becomes Beyond Petroleum although fossil fuels deliver 98% of its revenue.

Also popular are the setting of vague and distant ‘carbon-neutral’ targets or timelines, if any.  Where carbon-reduction is quantified and documented in glossy sustainability reports, mathematical sleight-of-hand and fancy linguistic footwork obscure the bigger picture of rising emissions.  Excluding overseas operations or the manufacturing outsourced to carbon-intensive factories of developing countries helps to cook the carbon books, as does ignoring the 90% or more of a big corporate’s total carbon footprint which is to be found in supply chain carbon emissions (raw materials, packaging, transport, etc.).

Green tokenism is a favourite in the greenwasher’s palette.  A few green products, made in miniscule numbers, are heavily promoted to lend “green kudos” to their major line of carbon-heavy business - car-makers plug their hybrid and electric vehicles, coal-fired electricity producers tout their tiny involvement in renewable energy, and builders such as Australia’s Grocon showcase on-site renewable energy buildings but their core business remains, respectively, petrol-guzzling cars, fossil fuel power and huge concrete-and-steel high rises.

Hyped-up examples of renewable energy use (solar panels at head office, for example) also act as tokenistic diversions.  McDonald’s turns the organic waste from its restaurants in Switzerland into bio-gas for its trucks but the rest of their 33,500 restaurants serve 64 million cheeseburgers a day, each with a serving of the three kilograms of CO2 used to make it.

Richard Branson finds that bio-fuels make great window-dressing for Virgin’s aeroplanes but he doesn’t mention how such ‘green’ jet fuels rely on the destruction of forest carbon-sinks, nor does he publicise the force-feeding of CO2 from coal-fired power stations to turbo-charge algae growth.  Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic sets itself quietly for a six-fold increase in CO2 per space passenger.  

Banks promote the earth-friendly way they shuffle money around in their greened offices but they are mute over the fossil fuel projects the money finances (the ANZ bank is the largest financer of new coal projects in Australia, for example).  Greened-up accounting, legal and consultancy firms also “play a crucial role in floating, financing and defending” the world’s biggest carbon polluters amongst their fossil fuel clients.

Green minimalism plunges to its depths with ‘Earth Hour’ – killing their office lights for one hour on one Saturday night a year is the cheap entry price to this green charade for Earth Hour’s 20,000 business sponsors including such heavy carbon polluters as mining companies, coal-fired power-generators, car-makers and steel-makers.  And the result for the atmosphere?  The equivalent of pausing global coal use for two minutes.

Of course, it never hurts one’s green image to collaborate with green academia (Panasonic funded the establishment of a Chair in Environmental Sustainability at Macquarie University in Sydney) or certain environmental groups (the World Wildlife Fund accepts $70 million a year from corporations who prize the green business value of the WWF’s panda logo).

‘Green’ power companies make valuable greenwash partners, too.  The Australian Football League went carbon-neutral in 2006 with Origin Energy, the largest green energy retailer in Australia which nevertheless produces half its electricity from coal or gas-fired sources and whose one-third share in the coal seam gas from the massive Australia Pacific Liquefied Natural Gas export project will erase all the emissions saved by Origin’s green power sales since 1999, ten times over.

“In the end”, concludes Pearse, greenwashing is simply about “looking green to increase profits”.  Don’t just take his word for it.  The casino giant, Caesars Entertainment, explicitly says a green image makeover is good for business profits - ‘climate change presents the company with an opportunity to strengthen its reputation and brand … we anticipate that over time this will lead to increased market share and revenues’. 

Despite Pearse’s capitalist sympathies (he doesn’t want to “demonise big business or overlook the positive steps that many companies are making” in the challenge to be green “while remaining profitable and competitive”), as he deftly peels away the green fa├žade from many of world’s biggest capitalists, it becomes apparent that the environmental challenge is beyond them, beyond the profit-driven market economy.  To be truly green, we need to be Red, too.

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