Is greenwashing the future?

Art by Petter Bakken // @iamhoy

Natalie Johnsen

The public is well aware of its consumer power. It is also aware of the climate impact our everyday lives have on the globe. How does this affect companies trying to make a profit? Is every company’s step towards a green future actually genuine? Continuing in the green lane, it is interesting to look into Equinor’s name change and what it really is.

Greenwashing as an actual word
Greenwashing became a word in 1983 when writer Jay Westerwelt was on holiday on the Fiji islands. He started wondering about the hotel’s intentions when he saw a note that asked the guests to use their towels for more than one day, claiming it to be an effort to help save the coral reef. Rather, it was a way for the hotel to save money and expand their hotel. Westerwelt termed this greenwashing. Today greenwashing is defined as “the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not.” As consumers become more and more aware of their consumer power, from the business point of view, greenwashing becomes more important. Though, I would argue, actually becoming and eco-friendly company would profit both the business and the world even more.

How to spot the greenwashers?
Having a green business profile is important to attract customers. But how can customers spot the greenwashers? Portraying a step taken in ones business as a green measure, when it really is just about cost-efficiency as explained in the towel example above, is one example of greenwashing. Many companies actually invest in greener options in their production line, end product, the service they offer and so on. But to then put a lot of focus on this green part of the business, letting it overshadow the rest in media and advertisements, would be a way to hide the rest of the company’s business away from the scrutiny of the public eye. An example of this kind of greenwashing is H&M’s “Conscious Collection”, which focuses is on clothing made from sustainable fabrics, plastic from the ocean and scrap metal, pulling attention away from allegations of terrible working conditions for their workers in Asian factories.

Companies use visual effects to derail the viewers attention when creating advertisements and portraying their company on the website. They use buzzwords such as “sustainable”, “green” and “climate-efficient”. Last but not least, the use of numbers as a tool to create trust is often seen on companies’ web pages. The reason being that numbers are often perceived as facts.

They use buzzwords such as “sustainable”, “green” and “climate-efficient”

To know the difference between climate friendly companies and those that are really not can be important for our future. In 2014, the global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were almost 10 billion tons. So who really makes an effort to change should matter to us users.

“Energizing” our lives
Equinor is an important company for us Norwegians, and they are part of what has brought us wealth no one could have ever imagined 100 years ago. Their position is therefore important, and one could even say that they set the agenda for tomorrow regarding everything related to energy. They are also one of those companies that are eager in the use of visual effects, numbers and buzzwords. Equinors innovative name change from Statoil, which had close links to oil, to Equinor, is a strategic move. “Equi”, associated with words like equal, equality and equilibrium, and “nor”, connected to the company’s Norwegian origin, will most likely have a different meaning to the public than what Statoil had grown to. Sustainability and global warming are topics people are becoming more aware of and therefore Statoil needed rebranding. If Equinor wanted to remain a company with the magnitude it had in the past it needed a greener profile. Now it is not only an oil company, but rather an energy company – at least it tries to be.

So does Equinor have more tricks up their sleeve? Their web page does not have many associations to oil, but instead the focus is on energy in a broader sense, and the use of a very few selected words. They use phrases like “We energize the lives of 170 million people. Every day.” However, they are still one of the world’s major net sellers of crude oil.

Captured 0,5 % of all their emissions
Equinor’s web page has separate pages for “Sustainability” and “Climate” where they focus on the transition to a lower emission economy. In 2017, the company could applaud itself for having captured and stored 22 million tonnes of CO2. This seems all well and good, but when comparing this number to the company’s total number of emissions through both sale and drilling since 1988, which is 4.7 billion tons of CO2, it does not seem that significant (according to the Carbon Disclosure Project from 2017). In other words, they have captured merely 0,5 % of all they have emitted through extraction and sales. Equinor is also responsible for 0,5 % of the world’s total emissions since 1988.

Reason for applause?
Yes, and no. We must remember that greenwashing
is when someone does something good (or not) and then put it at the front of their commercial campaigns like the whole company is really green, when really they are not. So what about Equinor? They have been an oil company for some decades, but are now transitioning, although taking small steps. One could argue that the reason they are now flagging “energy company” instead of “oil company” is merely for commercial effects and governmental subsidies’. But so what? Is it not the overall effect what matters? Yes, it is a slow development, but users can put more pressure on those in charge. The most important thing is that companies become greener, no matter how it is done.

So it greenwashing sustainable? No, not on its own. When Westerwelt came across the hotel’s note, the money saved from not washing the towels each day went into expanding the hotel and ruining the coral reef in the process, obviously not a positive measure for the environment. Knowing who is doing what and why can seem difficult, but we should try to support those that actually make a difference in their attempts to be green. It is difficult to place Equinor in the “greenwasher” or “actually trying” box, so maybe we should just wait and see.

In a time when people are refugees not only because of war and hunger, but also because of the climate, we all understand that drastic measures needs to be taken. We should applaud businesses that take a step towards a greener future, every step, no matter how small it is. But we, as the public, as consumers, should also call out those that hide their business behind a wall of green dreams. There is no room for greenwashers anymore.