Albion Monitor /News

Corporations "Greenwash" Enviro Image

by David Helvarg

(IPS) SAN FRANCISCO -- To the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," a group of sea lions use their flippers to applaud a passing oil tanker.

A young girl talks about the seedlings her dad is planting for a timber company.

An animated dove flits from factory smokestack to smokestack, as a narrator tells listeners how manufacturers are cleaning up their act.

These and other reassuring images have become ubiquitous in U.S. media. And it is not surprising because Dupont, International Paper, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and others are spending a billion dollars a year to convince the public that today's transnational corporations have a deep, abiding commitment to a clean and healthy environment.

Greenwashing combines corporate ad campaigns and high-profile "partnerships" with environmental groups

But critics warn that these advertisements are part of a larger agenda designed to help polluting and extractive industries to "greenwash" their image. They charge that at the same time companies are trying to convince the public that they are trusted environmental stewards, their officials are working to gut environmental laws and regulations.

Greenwashing goes beyond print and broadcast advertising to encompass a network of public relations efforts, third-party scientific and educational think tanks, professional lobbying, and "partnerships" with environmental organizations.

The key to greenwashing is its dual approach, which combines corporate ad campaigns and high-profile "partnerships" with environmental groups, while simultaneously lobbying to gut green laws and strengthen groups that harass and attack environmentalists, according to John Stauber, publisher of PR Watch magazine and co-author of "Toxic Waste is Good for You."

"What I see when I look at greenwashing," said Stauber, "is that the PR experts and anti-environment strategists who work for corporations have gotten the upper hand and are now doing a very effective job of managing environmental activism."

Not so, countered Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that numbers oil and auto interests among its clients. "When you see corporate America doing green advertising," he said, "it's because they get hit so hard so often by the environmental community, so you have to let the public know what good you're doing."

Industry's investment in what it refers to as "green communications" is often spurred by public-relations disasters, such as the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India, which killed 3,000 people, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

The greatest boost to green PR has been the rapid growth of environmental values among the U.S. over the past 35 years.

This new green ethic reached a crescendo in April 1990, when tens of millions of citizens participated in rallies, protests and celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. It was an event industry used to polish its image, as corporations such as ARCO, Monsanto, British Petroleum and Peabody Coal made direct contributions to Earth Day activities.

It would be reassuring to believe this reflected a significant change in corporate attitudes, but it doesn't.

What Chevron doesn't say is that what these "people do" is required under federal law

The Chemical Manufacturers Association, for example, runs ads for "Responsible Care," a voluntary program in which each member company evaluates its own environmental performance. The program was recommended to CMA by its Public Perception Committee following the Bhopal disaster.

However, while its smoke-stack sniffing dove is trying to assure viewers that industry has cleaned up its act, the CMA has been in the forefront of anti-environmental lobbying, most recently fighting to eliminate the Community Right to Know Act which, among other things, requires companies to inform the public which and how much of 650 toxic chemicals they are releasing into surrounding communities.

A 1991 report in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing found that 58 percent of environmental ads sampled contained at least one misleading or deceptive claim. Unfortunately much of this deception seems to work.

"Chevron is far and away considered the most environmentally responsible oil company -- far above the others in areas where our advertising exists," boasted David Soblin, of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency.

Soblin, who bases his claim on long-term tracking polls, is the creator of Chevron's "People Do" ads that have been running in print and on television since 1985.

In its ads, Chevron touts the efforts its employees are making to protect the natural habitat of a wide range of wildlife. What the company doesn't say is that what these "people do" is required under federal law and that Chevron is a member of the American Petroleum Institute, which is lobbying to gut the very laws that force it to protect these habitats in the first place.

Corporate greenwashing is also effective, in part, because it enlists the aid of established environmental organizations. The Natural Resources Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense Fund are among the prominent groups that have been involved in recent corporate green campaigns.

And when that isn't possible, the corporations create their own organization.

What people may see as corporations partnering with environmentalists, the corporate folks see as a successful divide and conquer strategy

The latest example of one of these industry front groups is Concerned Alaskans for Resources and the Environment. The group was set up this year, with $175,000 in seed money from the timber industry, to advocate for the extension of clear-cut logging permits in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska.

Why the name-games? "People try to fudge a little bit about what their goals are. They want to create a patina of good-guyness," PR executive Dash admitted in a New York Times interview. "Companies need the environmental movement and environmental groups take a lot of money from companies."

"What they want is access, cooperation," he added, "and why not?"

Because it undermines the effectiveness of the environmental movement, answers PR gadfly John Stauber, a vocal critic of partnerships between environmental organizations and corporations. What people some activists may see as "important partnering" companies, he said, "the corporate folks see as a successful divide and conquer strategy."

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Albion Monitor December 31, 1996 (

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