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The Deception Continues As Companies Hide Behind Fake Environmental Promises

Too many companies and the firms that promote them are making shallow climate pledges – while continuing to get support from the fossil fuel industry.

Method Campaign Services said the job was advertised as an “environmental fellowship.” The LA Times reported that one candidate was led to believe she’d be “standing up for sustainability.” So it came as quite the shock that new employees were being paid by a firm working for the natural gas industry and lured through fake environmental promises.

A complaint was filed in 2019 alleging that BP’s marketing campaigns had misled the public by focusing on the company’s low carbon energy products. The digital and billboard ads pointed to the company’s carbon mitigating “Keep Advancing” and “Possibilities Everywhere” themes, when more than 96% of its annual spending was on oil and gas. BP withdrew the ads before the complaint was assessed.

Global Witness, Greenpeace, and Earthworks filed a false advertising complaint against Chevron earlier this year with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces rules against deceptive ads. The environmental groups said that, despite Chevron’s ads boasting of its investment in renewable energy, the company spent just 0.2% of its annual capital expenditure budget — roughly $26 million a year — on ecologically-sound energy sources.

Such duplicity and fake environmental promises are not new. As early as the 1950s, the tobacco companies and fossil fuel industry groups shared scientists and publicists to downplay dangers of smoking and climate change.

Sometimes companies’ zero emissions ad campaigns emerge from public pressure to reject the fossil fuel industry. Yet, behind the scenes, the companies continue to maintain the same long-standing relationships that perpetuate carbon-emitting practices. Marketing creates the impression of visionary companies attempting to transition their companies to clean energy. They especially embrace younger audiences — the energy consumers of the future — with fake environmental promises uttered by paid social media influencers.

Company marketing can reflect a partial picture of business strategies and investments. Unfortunately, too many companies continue to promote fossil fuel exploration and projects while, at the same time, calling themselves “sustainable” and pledging to evolve in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

Is Edelman’s Sustainability Pledge Real or Another Bit of Subterfuge?

This month, Edelman, the world’s largest public relations agency, announced it will review its operations and client roster to align with a new sustainability strategy. That decision came after an #EdelmanDropExxon campaign led by activist groups Clean Creatives and Slow Factory.

We’ve been tracking that highly publicized protest here at CleanTechnica, which captured the support of influencers, celebrities, and high-profile climate activists like Naomi Klein, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sophia Bush, Ilana Glazer, and Meena Harris. A letter, signed by these and over 100 other climate justice advocates and creators, challenged Edelman in particular to relinquish Big Oil clients.

“Given the stakes, we are now going public with our demand to Edelman: drop ExxonMobil and all other fossil-fuel clients. Ending advertising and PR for fossil-fuel companies is a crucial step toward climate justice.”

Edelman was the target of activists at COP26, the United Nations summit on climate change in Glasgow. The environmentalists called out the world’s largest public relations (PR) firm for its work on behalf of ExxonMobil, demanding that the firm drop the client due to handling of climate issues. The Edelman/ExxonMobil campaign was designed to persuade consumers to question climate policy and incorporated social media ads that placed the fossil fuel megacorporation in a beneficial light.

ExxonMobil’s politically focused ads are a part of its “Exxchange” platform, which the company describes as a “community bringing together energy supporters to take action on issues affecting the energy industry and everyday lives.” Harris Media, known for working with far-right political campaigns, had originally been credited for creating Exxchange. Clean Creatives exposed a coding error that indicates Edelman also appears to have also played a role in managing the information flow.

“What happened in Glasgow was disappointing,” Richard Edelman, CEO of the firm, told Adweek. With intergovernmental agreements on climate change only limiting global warming to 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, he boasted, “It’s down to businesses to fill that void. And we want to be the firm of choice in making that transition.”

Yet Edelman didn’t disclose the degree to which his company would diminish its relationship with ExxonMobil. Instead, he announced a 60-day review of Edelman’s client roster and work, with a January 10, 2022 update and the company’s first climate report in June. The company says it intends to target ESG, sustainability, purpose, and climate goals and to establish science- and values-based criteria for engagement with clients.

“You’re going to see better. You’re going to see improvement, you’re going to see change, and we’re going to lead the change,” Edelman promised.

Persuasion is the ability to coax someone to believe in something or to take action on a particular topic. Edelman is keenly aware of the capability that PR has in persuading public opinion beyond simply providing information or education. “We have the ability to create an emotional reason to do,” Edelman acknowledged.

“Greenwashing” refers to companies claiming that their products are environmentally friendly, when often they are not. Whether Edelman will relinquish fossil fuel clients remains to be seen.

Greenwashing — The Art of Fake Environmental Promises

Greenwashing has different faces. FTI, a global consulting firm, helped design, staff, and run organizations and websites funded by energy companies that appeared to represent grass-roots support for fossil-fuel initiatives. A New York Times exposé describes how, as part of its services to the industry, FTI monitored environmental activists online, and in one instance an employee created a fake Facebook persona — an imaginary, middle-aged Texas woman with a dog — to help keep tabs on protesters.

The ClientEarth greenwashing files expose how pervasive the false sustainability narrative is. The team of 200 people across 8 offices in over 50 countries uses the law to create systemic change by focusing on the most pressing environmental challenges. They do so because “a future in which people and planet thrive together isn’t just possible — it’s essential.”

ClientEarth 2021 advocacy has produced several successes.

  • As the fight against plastic continues, petrochemicals giant Ineos announced that it has suspended plans for one of two major new plastics production units in Antwerp. This follows ClientEarth’s court win against them last November.
  • In a massive win for the UK and the climate, Drax confirmed it will abandon its plans to build Europe’s largest gas plant. Now ClientEarth wants to see Drax embrace real low-carbon and sustainable energy.
  • The European Commission has started new proceedings against the Polish government for their continued failure to comply with the Court of Justice of the European Union’s ruling and protect Bialowieza – Europe’s oldest forest.
  • The European Court of Justice confirmed that the EU illegally allowed dangerous substances for sale in paints when there were safer options, setting a precedent that tightens the screw on companies’ use of toxic chemicals in the EU.
  • After a five-year legal battle, a Brussels court ruled that the Brussels regional government has breached EU law by failing to correctly monitor and protect the health of its citizens against harmful levels of air pollution. The authorities have been ordered to take immediate action to address the issue.

Fossil fuel companies and the firms that publicize them may claim to support bold action to avoid the worst of the climate crisis, but their actions can tell a different story. It’s up to us to call them out so that zero emissions marketing becomes more honest and transparent.

Image courtesy of NASA/open source

 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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