We are living in an age of unprecedented greenwashing

This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 14th of November 2023.

It’s that time of year again when the advertising industry goes all out. Right on cue the soundtracks are building the mood for shopping. Images of snowy landscapes, open fires and the sound of train sets will assault the senses until we forget about the calamities of war and planetary breakdown and we can get on with shopping. Irish consumers will spend an average of €1,200 per household on Christmas. It’s an orgy of spending that, if we’re honest, is often mechanical and performative, far removed from the atmosphere of love and sacrifice in O Henry’s 1905 short story The Gift of the Magi.

According to one estimate, more than 50 per cent of the gifts we receive will be “useless” and during the festive season we will produce 25-30 per cent more waste than we normally do. We are resigned to this gluttony and waste because we are led to believe that this is what Christmas is all about. An advertising executive in the UK went as far as claiming recently that Christmas advertising is an integral part of the festive season. No wonder, as social theorist Fredric Jameson quipped that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

When it comes to humbug, the advertising industry and the cycle of overconsumption and waste it supports has no rival. PR and advertising agencies help to obstruct climate action by positioning companies selling fossil fuels or related products such as boilers and cars as part of the solution to climate change – astonishingly this is not illegal. The 2023 Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report analyses the transparency and quality of the climate strategies of 24 global corporations that sell themselves as “climate leaders”. It found that all these companies – which include such household names as Amazon, Google, H&M, Zara and Samsung – have made climate claims or announced future net-zero targets that are misleading, exaggerated or false.

The scale of greenwashing is unprecedented. In September, Apple (one of the better performing companies in the report above) unveiled a new range of watches which it claimed to be its first carbon-neutral products. While the firm has taken some measures to reduce the emission footprint of these products, including the partial use of recycled materials and a moderate reduction in emissions-intensive air transportation, it also used carbon offsets to cancel out the 7-12kg of greenhouse gas emissions behind each new watch.

Apple has drawn criticism from environmental and consumer groups for this claim, but it is doing more than its rivals. And – research has found – most consumers don’t tend to think too hard about what claims of carbon neutrality really mean. Advertising works because our brains are wired to believe what we are told, and because we are taught to associate material things with the “good life”. Who doesn’t want to look or feel good? This is the cultural water we swim in. When it comes to environmental behaviours, advertising campaigns manipulate these unconscious associations by using nature imagery, green colours, eco-labels and some packaging cues to give the impression of a product being environmentally friendly.

Consider Avonmore’s latest campaign emblazoned on its milk cartons announcing that the company is “helping” biodiversity with tree and hedgerow planting. This ad does not make any claims about the product inside the packaging that could expose the brand to criticisms of greenwashing. But while the ad is not claiming that the milk is “green” or that there is net gain for biodiversity, it glosses over the role that dairy farming overall plays in biodiversity loss.

The holy grail of the advertising industry is to sell the idea of a feeling that can be completely detached from the actual product itself, because then, just about anything can be commodified and sold – including the fantasy that is carbon offsetting. As long as advertising claims are not subject to tight rules with financial penalties for non-compliance, the industry can continue to offer a world in which planetary boundaries do not matter.

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