Environment Analysis

Corporate 'greenwashing' a major obstacle in climate change fight

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Aldi has avoided "greenwashing" tactics by turning to 100% renewable energy sources (image by Laura Thorne via Flickr)

Businesses must stop "greenwashing" and take concrete steps to tackle climate change, writes Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.

APART FROM THE hopeless intransigence in Canberra, corporate greenwashing is emerging as one of the major obstacles to Australia’s renewable energy transformation.

In a new Greenpeace investigative report, we’ve uncovered and untangled some of the ways in which major businesses are covering up their responsibility for climate pollution with greenwashing.

One of the most important tests of whether any business is serious about climate change and the environment is whether the company has adopted a binding commitment to using 100% renewable electricity by 2025. Greenpeace’s report details a whole host of examples of companies engaging in greenwashing behaviour around failing to act to achieve that goal.

The aim of greenwashing is to inflate environmental credentials. Greenwashing functions to promote the brand, while simultaneously deflecting pressure to end environmentally destructive practices. A company that engages in greenwashing is hiding the truth and making it more difficult for consumers, investors and other stakeholders to make environmentally responsible choices between providers of goods and services.

Perhaps most cynically of all, greenwashing can be an instrument to give staff false comfort that their employer is doing the right thing, or even to create empty reassurance for boards that areas of risk and opportunity are being addressed.

Some of the most obvious greenwash tactics include the use of environmentally-friendly, but empty, rhetoric including in policies, slogans and taglines, and the use of language, imagery, colour palettes and pictures that suggests care for the environment.

One of the most common forms of greenwashing is to focus on comparatively minor environmental issues. Earlier this year, I had an interaction with the head of a major Australian business which typified this kind of greenwashing in action.

We’d just finished a face-to-face conversation about how this company sources its electricity. I’d pointed out that the firm in question is a major energy user and needed to do its bit and transition to sourcing all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025 or sooner. 

Many leading Australian companies have already made this commitment, including Coles, Woolworths, Bunnings, Aldi, TPG Telecom and Telstra. But some businesses are proving slower off the mark and this company definitely fell into the latter category.

While the meeting was frustratingly inconclusive on climate commitments, the CEO was very proud of the company’s new recycling program for staff food and beverage containers and waste. After the meeting, I was taken on a short detour to view some new, brightly coloured bins. I was polite – recycling is a good thing, of course – but head-shakingly bemused by the deliberate attempt to redirect attention from climate change to sandwich wrappers.

The approach taken by companies that have made real commitments to the biggest corporate challenges stands in sharp contrast to this experience. For example, the CEO of Aldi, Tom Daunt, has explicitly explained that his company based its climate change action plan around an analysis of where it could have the greatest impact.

Aldi committed to sourcing all of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2021 and beat their target by six months, achieving the goal by 30 June this year.

After reaching the objective Mr Daunt told me that:

When we stood back and assessed our environmental footprint as a whole, we determined it made sense to first focus our efforts on the areas we could have the biggest impact. We found 85% of our carbon emissions were derived from the electricity we used to power our operations.


To mitigate this we prioritised investments in wind and solar and now our entire business, including all our stores and warehouses, are now fully powered with 100% renewable electricity.

Taking significant steps – as Aldi have done – and not seeking praise for more trivial things as in the case of the other business referred to above, is fundamental to avoiding greenwashing.

In addition to focusing on the smaller things first, other common greenwashing techniques include promoting participation in initiatives that, in reality, will do little towards solving major environmental problems, or that shift the focus away from the cause of environmental problems to symptom or to individual end-users.

The practice of "offsetting" can be one of the most serious forms of greenwashing in the context of climate change and is a major focus of today’s report. While projects such as reforestation to replant rapidly declining forests are crucially important in their own right, the climate-destroying emissions caused by burning fossil fuels cannot be “offset” by land-based carbon schemes.

Offsetting can act to delay meaningful work from companies to reduce emissions from their operations at the source. It also often lacks effectiveness and is beset with practical problems.

Most fundamentally, there is simply not enough land on the planet to "offset" emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. In particular, for consumers, investors and other stakeholders, offsetting can create the perception of effective climate action and so divert choices and attention from real solutions: namely, the rapid transition to renewable energy.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western AustraliaYou can follow David Ritter on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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