A photo via Canva/DisobeyArt shows the protest signs from a climate action march.
Advocacy & News

What You Need To Know About Greenwashing & Climate Action

We’ve often seen buzzwords like ‘carbon footprint’, ‘offsetting’ and ‘net zero’ used by companies touting their eco-friendly efforts; but what, if anything, does this mean in terms of their climate action? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not always as beneficial as some would have us believe.

This is not to say that businesses with environmental action points aren’t initiating impactful, sustainable changes to their practices and products; many are doing the work, but it’s critical we’re aware of any companies that mislead consumers about their environmental credentials/performance; commonly referred to as greenwashing.

Background Image: A photo by Karsten Würth of a field at dusk with renewable energy wind turbines and pink skies overhead. Foreground Text: What You Need To Know About Greenwashing and Climate Change.

Our carbon footprint, for example, refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that someone/something produces. On a personal level, it’s about taking a look at where our everyday actions contribute to global warming; and what changes we can make to become more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. Nobody is likely to argue that identifying what we can implement as consumers to fight rapid climate change isn’t a worthy undertaking. The problem is that the term ‘carbon footprint’ was first coined by British Petroleum (BP) to deflect attention from its own carbon emission pollution and that of other industry behemoths; who are profoundly responsible for driving global warming. Through a very slick and effective ad campaign, BP managed to promote the idea that individuals, and not Big Oil are responsible for climate change.

The oil giant infused the term into our normal, everyday lexicon. (And the sentiment is not totally wrong — some personal efforts to strive for a cleaner world do matter.) But there’s now powerful, plain evidence that the term “carbon footprint” was always a sham, and should be considered in a new light — not the way a giant oil conglomerate, who just a decade ago leaked hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, wants to frame your climate impact. | Mark Kauffman – Mashable

If a brand, business, company or industry uses the term ‘carbon footprint’ in their production and/or marketing; it’s worth checking to see if they clearly outline exactly what they mean by it. Are they establishing measurable steps with regards to their own practices or merely stating a set of suggested goals? It’s also worth having a healthy dose of scepticism when offsetting is being used as a means to lower carbon emissions and fight climate damage.

A photo via Canva/kynny of some solar panels in an urban city setting with some high rise buildings in the background.
Renewable solar energy being used in an inner city | photo via kynny (Canva)

‘Offsetting’ is when greenhouse gas emissions from industrial, corporate and (sometimes) individual activity get ‘neutralized’ through participating in or funding different initiatives that extract equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — thus reducing this type of pollution. This essentially means a company will support ecologically protective programs like renewable energy projects, anti-deforestation organizations and tree-planting drives to compensate for their carbon footprint. The trouble with the concept behind offsetting is that it can sometimes be a climate action mirage.

A company cannot offset its way to net-zero emissions because it undermines the need for investment in structural changes to cut pollution […] | Jess Shankleman & Akshat Rathi via Bloomberg Green

If I were to punch someone in the face and then pay for a different person to receive a facial massage to offset the harm I caused; I’m not making the initial injury any better. I’m also not being held accountable for my behaviour or reforming it in any concrete way; I can keep punching people in the face while looking like I care about them without making amends.

This may seem like a glib comparison to make but it does go some way to explain how offsetting doesn’t necessarily encourage the industrial change needed to boldly tackle global warming. Major contributors to climate change shouldn’t get to pat themselves on the back for promoting and funding sustainable projects and organisations; while they continue the practices that are pushing us towards ecological collapse. We need systemic change that works alongside the initiatives that are at the forefront of proactive environmental protection and justice.

A photo by Brett Whaley of a canoe floating through a Minnesota wild rice lake on a sunny day.
Wild rice lakes in Minnesota, a vital food staple for surrounding Indigenous communities, are under threat from Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline | photo via Brett Whaley

Working towards net-zero has merit (offsetting that creates complete carbon neutrality); it does generate avenues for significant financial support of the environmental solutions we desperately need. But if businesses and corporations still get to habitually pollute the Earth while doing it, net-zero begins to look a lot like obfuscation. I think it’s time for absolute truth and transparency from Big Fossil Fuel and their ilk. I’m tired of the greenwashing about how great their climate actions are; at this point, it just feels like they’re punching us all in the face while telling us it doesn’t hurt.

Have you heard of greenwashing before? Do you think fossil fuel industries are doing enough to combat global warming? How is climate change impacting where you live?


Further Info:

Indigenous Environmental Network

Environmental & Climate Justice – NAACP

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58 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Greenwashing & Climate Action”

  1. This was such an interesting post! I didn’t know that the term carbon footprint came from BP. I don’t think that big companies and government are doing enough for it, but as you said using this kind of word can be misleading, mostly for someone that probably heard them without doing any research on it. You can already see how climate change is affecting the climate all year around.

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    1. I agree — it seems to me that a number of companies and governments are hiding behind these eco-friendly terms and actually not doing as much (or as well) as they say they are. We definitely need some strict rules about transparency regarding this.

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

  2. I never knew that BP first came up with the term ‘carbon footprint’. Your post is really interesting and I 100% agree that the big companies aren’t doing nearly enough in the race to save this planet. It’s shocking that governments aren’t taking enough action, in this day and age!

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    1. I think BP was very calculating and managed to pull of a big ruse as you’re not alone in not realizing BP created the term (for their own ends). There is a remarkable lack of actual change happening within governments and industry polluters that I hope there will be more transparency and accountability with climate action driving it all. Thank you so much for reading!

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  3. I have seen a few companies using the term carbon footprint. I found it interesting to see how many companies are saying or using this term. I do wonder are they really doing anything for the planet. Its good to do research and learn more about what are these companies really doing.

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  4. It really sucks how compaines and countries get away with pretending to do something to avoid the coming climate disaster, when the reality is the opposite. I remember back in the 90s/00s when compaines could buy carbon offsetting from places like big farms who would collect the methane from the pig to use a fuel. It’s all such a scam

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    1. It is all such a scam and one those industries have got away for way too long — and still seem to. I remember a big environmental push in the 90s from various companies that have seemingly come to nothing. It’s shameful.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Never heard of “greenwashing” before your post but I knew what it meant as soon as I did. Thank you so much for pointing out that carbon footprint is something BP made up. These companies have absolutely spent the past few decades gaslighting us into believing we have had just as big a hand in accelerating climate change as they have. Fuel industries are not doing enough in my opinion to combat global warming but I feel other power players, like the media and those in power, also don’t do enough to challenge them. I really like your post, Molly.

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    1. Gaslighting is exactly right — and it’s time that we as consumers demand absolute transparency and accountability from the industries primarily responsible for global warming. Definitely not enough is being to done via the media or governments to make sure this happens — it’s shameful. Thank you for reading!

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  6. What an interesting post! I’ve heard of green washing but only briefly and don’t know much about it so this is super helpful. Reading this definitely makes you want to consider how you shop!

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    1. I had hoped that this post will help people be aware that some eco-friendly credentials are not always what they seem. It’s a shame we as consumers have to be so weary because there isn’t robust industry transparency and accountability. Thank you so much for reading!

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  7. I think the way you described it as being punched in the face and told it doesn’t hurt is a great way of describing greenwashing.
    It’s terrifying that the global companies are doing nothing about climate change and the governments support them. 😠

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    1. Exactly — greenwashing is literally causing us harm but looks like something is being done to stop it. There is so much these industries could do, they have enormous power to effect change — but so far they don’t appear to be doing as much as they say they are.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  8. Thank you for such an interesting read! I’ve never really understood the term carbon footprint until I started reading more articles like this one. I definitely believe that big pharma and corporate are hiding behind these terms and are not doing anything to help better or improve the ecosystem.

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    1. I agree — there is definitely some good work happening but there is a lot of hiding behind these terms to make themselves look better. I hope that transparency becomes the norm with these industries but it needs to be much more rigorous than it currently is. Our existence literally depends on it.

      Thank you for reading!

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  9. I’ve never heard of greenwashing before but it makes so much sense. I bet so many companies do this, I’m going to keep an eye out when I read up on companies. I’ve seen them ‘offset’ climate change a lot!

    Corinne x

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    1. Many do and that really is just a fancy way fo saying they will continue to pollute as they always have. It needs to be combined with change and action that makes an immediate difference. I will be keeping an eye out too as it can be quite deceptive! Thanks so much for reading!

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  10. This is such an informative post! Offsetting might take years before any significant results can be seen while the effects of climate change are being experienced now. Actions to reduce emissions and other types of pollution are needed now.

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  11. This article explains the difference so well between greenwashing and carbon footprint! I didn’t really understand the difference until you used the example about punching people in the face and giving other people a facial massage to say sorry. It’s so scary to think that big companies are polluting the environment, but then saying it’s okay because we’re recycling or using solar power, etc! What about all of the emissions they are spewing into the environment? Why not switch to renewable energy? Very interesting topic, and one which I am constantly seeing the effects of here in Australia.

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    1. Greenwashing is something I hope people become more aware of and fight against as it’s unacceptable that companies and industry giants get to look like they’re being environmentally sustainable when they aren’t. Renewable energy has to be a way forward but there seems to be too much money in climate destruction (that then gets given to governments/government members to create policy in the polluters favour). Australia has such a finely balanced and delicate ecosystem that it must be protected — and the whole world is responsible for taking care of our planet. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  12. Greenwashing is a problem and I’m glad more and more people are starting to do their own research rather than trusting companies and taking their word for it. Your example of punching someone in the face and then paying someone to receive a facial massage to offset the impact was spot on. Thank you for this informative post Molly!

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    1. I’m glad the face punching analogy worked as I wasn’t sure if it came off too flippant, but I do think it illustrates the duplicitous nature of offsetting by these large industries. I am so glad you found this informative — thank you for reading.

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  13. As a lot of other commenters have said here, I had no idea that the concept and term “carbon footprint” came from BP! It’s infuriating how easily large conglomerates manipulate the media – and via the media, us.

    I know a lot of people who focus on every tiny detail of their household recycling (a lady I work with actually scrabbles through the bin to retrieve tiny scraps of paper so she can point out to everyone that they should go in the recycling!) They feel that they are making a difference, but it’s a little like trying to use a thimble to bail out a boat that’s sinking. Without the world’s governments holding these polluting organisations to account, our individual actions can only do so much. Instead of being distracted by greenwashing techniques and micromanaging our paper scraps, we’d be better off campaigining and raising awareness of the real issues – like you’re doing here. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. I agree — it is unacceptable how BP and similar industries have manipulated their image. We’ve been duped into thinking we are primarily responsible for climate change and the actions needed to combat it. We have a responsibility, of course, as we are the consumer but nothing will improve even if we do all we can because Big Money fossil fuel industries carry on as they are. There has to be systemic change — but I fear that as there is so much money in climate destruction (which often funds government members through lobbying) that not enough will change in the time we need to in order to save ourselves. I hope raising awareness helps, knowledge is power in large enough numbers. Thank you so much for your comment.

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  14. Every time I read your blog I always feel so informed and like I am learning so much. Thank you for sharing on such an important topic. It’s so sad that we really can’t trust companies to be truthful about the processes and it’s up to us to do more research and be better !

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    1. Thank you — I hope to spread awareness of things maybe not always covered so much in the media/social media so I am so happy this was useful and informative! From past and current behaviours, it definitely seems like we can’t trust companies to be truthful — which is really sad. Hopefully by holding them accountable their polluting practices will change.
      I really appreciate your comment!

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    1. It sucks so bad as it undoes all the good we as individuals are trying to do. If we can’t trust these industries and the government policy that oversees them to implement climate action that actually makes a difference then nothing will improve. I am so glad you found this informative and are now aware of what to look out for. Thank you so much for reading!

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  15. This was such an interesting post, thank you so much for sharing. I have to admit that I never really considered exactly what a company might be doing, probably fooled by the greenwashing despite looking for companies that are trying to make a difference. I loved your analogy of punching someone in the face, that summed it up really well. Great post!

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    1. I think we all trust that when a company uses the terms ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘net zero’ that their climate action is what they say it is — but often this is not the case. It is sad that we as consumers are duped, especially when we’re trying to do the right thing and support eco-friendly products. I am so happy that this post was informative — I hope more and more people become aware of greenwashing and how to hold industries accountable. Thank you for reading!

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  16. This is a very powerful and impactful blog post. There are so many companies that are guilty of greenwashing as a marketing strategy for financial gain. But how many consumers actually research before purchase? Consumers put their trust in companies, The FDA and other regulatory bodies, who’s main goal is not public health, but more tax revenues for the country. Great post!! 👏 👏 👏 👏 👏 👏

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    1. As consumers we should research before we buy but you’re 100% right that we often don’t because we place trust in the companies themselves; which in too many cases is misplaced. If I can do my bit to make people aware of greenwashing, etc then I hope transparency and accountability becomes the norm and greenwashing as a practice is stopped. Thank you so much for reading!

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  17. That’s a very powerful analogy right there. If anyone was at all unsure of how companies offset their carbon emissions then you’ve just explained it very clearly. As you say, greenwashing does none of us any favours, so thank you for highlighting this.

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  18. Thank you for sharing more on greenwashing, there’s so much of it going around! This was so detailed and filled with important information. More needs done, they cannot simply offset it and think it’s ok, I love how you described it by using you analogy, so true. Like you say, punching someone and the paying for someones facial doesn’t negate the fact that one person has been injured. The big companies using the smoke screen of everyone has to be more sustainable, recycle and do their bit is awful, yes we need to do our bit but they would have so much more impact if they were doing it as well.

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    1. Exactly! It’s the deception of a lifetime that we somehow believe that climate action is solely on our shoulders. We must do our bit, of course, but the industries driving global warming are the ones who actually need to make systemic changes. Offsetting is so duplicitous as the environmental practices/orgs they’re funding to “offset” their pollution should be supported anyway and be the norm — not as an alternative to these companies, brands and industry giants actually changing their ways. I really appreciate you reading and sharing your thoughts!

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  19. I’ve heard of greenwashing before when it comes to fast fashion brands claiming that they’re sustainable or they have a sustainable collection.
    I don’t think fossil industries are doing enough to combat global warming because they’re offsetting their emissions & not actually doing anything to reduce their own pollution, which is a problem. I also didn’t know BP came up with the term carbon footprint.

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    1. I think offsetting is just a ruse to detract from an company/brand and their pollution — especially if they are doing nothing to change their impact. If it’s done alongside creating fully recyclable/sustainable products and/or making active changes to how they produce things then it’s a step in the right direction. But nobody is really holding them accountable and so — nothing really changes. Thank you so much for taking the time to read/comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I have a really hard time believing big companies when they use “green” language. Whether it’s big oil or clothing companies or anything else, I feel like I’ve been lied to by them for so many years it’s hard to trust that they are truly being sustainable. I feel like there needs to be much more accountability on these companies, but have no clue how we get there. Have you followed any of the Donziger v. Chevron case? It’s crazy how much power companies like Chevron have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a hard time believing it too — and it seems so pervasive. I recently read a post where a “sustainable” product was being touted but the pouch refills weren’t recyclable/able to be returned to resuse by the company and all they did was use offsetting. There needs to be absolute transparency because then consumers can make informed choices, etc. I haven’t heard about that case you mentioned so I will look into it (thanks for the info) — but it’s definitely scary how much political power and money these companies and industries have. Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. I agree that countries and many companies are not doing enough to protect our environment. It’s amazing to hear how many of these companies have the politicians in their backpocket. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Yes, there are so many funding politicians and lobbying for control over policy that should hold them accountable but they then use to benefit themselves. It’s a vile, twisted practice and they all need to be called out on this duplicity. Thank you so much for reading!

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  22. Great post, Molly! This summer alone showed how endangered our beautiful world is! The heatwaves were crazy. I’ve heard of the term greenwashing before and have seen companies who claim to be eco-friendly but are not! ugh, disgusting. Thanks for bringing awareness to this! x

    Lynn | https://www.lynnmumbingmejia.com

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  23. Of course BP and other companies like them want to shift responsibility to the individual consumer. I really hope we can move forward with renewables in a big way. It seems overwhelmingly impossible for world leaders to step up to the plate and actually lead, when Big Oil is so powerful.

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    1. Big Oil is so powerful and so much a part of governments around the world that we cannot possibly trust their policies and practices — I hope we all be a force for genuine change and no the smoke and mirrors lip service we’ve had so far. Thank you so much for reading!

      Like

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