The Many Ways Fossil Fuel Companies Are Using Social Media to Greenwash Climate Inaction
On display: an advertisement by a famous car brand, featuring young people from minority communities, cruising through serene, green vistas of the Italian countryside. It is as mystic as it is beautiful — the car, the people, and the brand merges into one aesthetic.
But the aesthetic is our collective undoing, betraying the extent to which corporate greenwashing — a tactic employed by powerful entities to disguise environmentally harmful or ineffective steps as sustainable sophisticatedly deceives people about climate action. A global investigation, conducted by Harvard researchers and published by Greenpeace recently, revealed the tricks of trade fossil fuel companies, airlines, and car brands use to present themselves as being climate conscious through their social media messaging.
The method to their “green” madness falls within a template, with companies freely employing visual imagery and linguistic codes to signal a faux commitment to things people care about. They abuse sustainability-related hashtags and terms like “green innovation,” are hyper–focused on individual carbon emissions, and seem to feature non-female presenting, non-binary, non-Caucasian people in their ads. The extent of misdirection is far more notorious and pernicious than people realize, seeping into the very nature of how we engage with our digital lives.
The report, titled Three shades of green(washing), presents a thorough review of the degrees and extent of greenwashing on social media. The researchers at Harvard University looked at some 2,325 posts made on the five horsemen of the apocalypse: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube. The period observed was the summer of 2022, between 1st June and 31st July — the duration coinciding with debilitating heatwaves, floods, and extreme weather events in Europe and globally. The focus was on companies indicted for their carbon emissions in particular: 12 car brands (including Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz), five airlines (Lufthansa and Air France, among others), and five of the largest fossil fuel companies (Royal Dutch Shell and Repsol).
“Our results show that, as Europe was experiencing its hottest summer on record, some of the companies most responsible for global heating stayed silent on social media about the climate crisis, opting instead to use language and imagery to strategically position themselves as green, innovative, charitable brands,” said Geoffrey Supran, research associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and lead author of the research.
Social media, Supran cautioned, “is the new frontier of climate deception and delay.” According to previous surveys, Gen Z and millennial people on social media are more likely than previous generations to engage with climate change content on social media. This is a double-edged sword, for misinformation and deliberate manipulation by companies are diluting the knowledge. Research shows that Gen Z is struggling to distinguish fact from fiction online. This is also a group that cares more about sustainable buying decisions, an insight that companies and brands are wielding for profit.
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67% of companies used social media to speak of “green innovation” without meaningfully acknowledging the climate crisis (only 0.3% of the companies explicitly referenced “climate change” or “global warming”). In this bandwagon of climate marketing, there was a haunting climate silence too.
And as many as one in five of these companies chimed in on issues about social justice, sports equity, and sustainable fashion to deflect attention from the profit-making nature of these organizations. “…many of these companies distort reality with more online airtime devoted to sports, social issues, and fashion than to their multibillion-dollar fossil-fuelled operations,” said Greenpeace senior campaigner Amina Adebisi Odofin. This is indeed a distortion, because what is sidelined is the fact that 20 fossil fuel companies (oil, gas, and coal) were directly responsible for more than a third of all carbon emissions. Airplane emissions of carbon dioxide are also expected to triple by 2050.
This is precisely the problem with misdirection as a greenwashing strategy: “it’s intended to shift the customer’s focus from a company’s appalling behaviors to something that’s peripheral,” as Jason Ballard, CEO of a sustainable home improvement brand, said back in 2017. The shift happens by using rhetorical strategies like whataboutery, free-rider excuses (that it is market failure, or the inefficient distribution of goods or services that is to blame, not the companies themselves), and making climate action an individual-helmed issue, where people are gaslit into believing it is their individual choices that are solely responsible for changing the world.
In multiple instances, by car brands, in particular, the social media posts didn’t even attempt to sell a product. The result is instant and evident: the companies most identifiably responsible for carbon emissions are positioning themselves as “green,” rather than actually selling anything. “Green intention” never meets behavior — it does, however, meet engagement, online reach, and even profits. Climate deception indeed makes for great marketing.
Greenwashing isn’t a new moral malaise. It was articulated in social discourse back in the 1980s, when scholar Jay Westerveld took issue with a resort’s marketing tactic that encouraged guests to reuse towels, in a bid to save the environment.
Around the same time, Chevron, one of the world’s leading energy corporations, ran an ad documenting a wondrous butterfly species that was able to thrive in a sanctuary owned by the company. The campaign went on to win an award for its altruistic impact, but the context was key to understanding this faux brand of climate consciousness. Chevron’s benevolent claims of protecting these lands “were mandated by law, and did not come from an altruistic sense of environmentalism. Plus, it’s not true, as many studies have shown the devastating side effects of oil and oil refineries in wildlife and its habitat,” as Angela Franco noted.
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This pattern becomes more nefarious when one thinks about how deliberate and strategic the deception is. Previous reports suggest that some fossil fuel corporations knew about climate change and its devastating implications as far back as 1977, 11 years before it fully cemented into public discourse; instead of taking accountability, they began to fortify themselves against the impact while continuing to damage the planet. Supran, in 2017, demonstrated this by showing one of the largest oil companies ExxonMobil systemically misled people about climate science and its impact through internal company documents and paid, editorial-style advertisements in publications like The New York Times.
It was still easier to spot outrageous claims about capitalistic ventures made in the name of environmental goodwill. These played out through ads and marketing campaigns — like Coca-Cola claiming to recycle a bottle for each bottle it sells, despite the fact it is responsible for a large chunk of world’s plastic waste.
But as Franco pointed out, greenwashing was normalized due to a bunch of reasons: “nonexistent laws to codify and define the practice; consumers’ enthusiasm to do anything that may remotely sound or look like it’s helping the environment during these times of irreversible climate change; and corporations’ use of more strategic, vague language in marketing, which has made greenwashing harder to spot and why it is more prevalent than we think.”
The current investigtion shows a field manual of sorts of how climate deception is becoming part of a brand’s communication language on social media, blurring the lines between intent, representation, and exploitation. “Companies variously leveraged imagery of nature, female-presenting, non-binary-presenting non-caucasian-presenting people, youth, experts, sportspeople, and celebrities to strengthen their messages of greenwashing and misdirection,” the report also noted.
It may seem innocuous to have young people enjoying the countryside while endorsing a brand notorious for fraud diesel emission claims. It is anything but: for these social media posts, which may or may not reference the company’s products or the work, have the potential to influence people’s perception of the brand. Worse, it creates a false sense of complacency — one that echoes ad infinitum on social media — that climate action is happening. We’re being programmed into desiring performative and tokenistic acts, even confusing them with climate science.
“This clear sports- and woke-washing is boosting the sales of climate-wrecking products, as well as fuelling international conflict and human rights abuses across the globe. If we are serious about tackling the climate crisis we need a ban on fossil advertising,” Odofin argued.
Social media is just the new site of manipulating our understanding, and efforts, around the climate crisis. Greenwashing has always been about misdirection, but the manipulation is now happening at scale.