As a child during the late 1990s, I was surrounded by reminders of my personal duty of care to our planet.
My boyhood hero Barney the Dinosaur relentlessly implored me to never let the water run, just as Captain Planet had for my older brother.
Although I was somewhat unsure of what a compost bin was, I made sure to lecture my parents as to the virtues it would bring to our household.
Despite constant assurance that my lifestyle habits could change the world, I always felt that underlying sense of futility common amongst those born around Fukuyama’s end of history.
This ambient dread was perhaps exacerbated by a sense of contradiction – the Celtic Tiger culture of my formative years celebrated reckless excess and unfettered corporate growth while we were personally made hyper-aware of our individual responsibilities to the earth.
As I grew older, I began to feel that these unexplained anxieties had been anything but irrational – according to a much cited and hotly debated 2017 study, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions.
While it is undeniably important to remember that our individual actions can make a change, I was immediately struck by the dissonance of how little attention had been given to the perspective that climate change is primarily driven by corporations.
This perspective had been kept out of my consciousness, in part, through the corporate strategy of greenwashing – the marketing ploy through which the companies who are disproportionately responsible for burning up our planet attempt to present themselves as saviors of mother nature.
“I’d say there are two kinds of corporate greenwashers, intentional and unintentional,” says Caroline Whyte of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, or Feasta.
“Intentional greenwashers aim to make money off naive consumers who are concerned about the environment and are befuddled by clever marketing. These greenwashers seem not to believe that there’s an environmental crisis at all – or if there is, that it somehow won’t affect them and so they can just make a few superficial gestures to placate the public and then continue on as before,” says Whyte.
“The unintentional greenwashers are different because they genuinely wish to improve their businesses’ environmental impact. The problem is that they believe that ‘green’ GDP growth is possible in the aggregate, so they don’t see any need for systemic change, either within their own organisations or in the wider economy,” she continues.
Whyte believes that the motivation for companies to greenwash stems from a mandate to maximise profits for shareholders, as well as financial constraints which make it impossible for corporations to truly put the environment first.
“Corporations have more of an impact than individuals for sure, because of their formidable political lobbying power, their ownership of the mainstream media and their ability to hire expensive lawyers to fight legal challenges to the damage they do,” Whyte says.
Here in Ireland, many of us were made aware of greenwashing after Ryanair declared themselves “Europe’s lowest fares, lowest carbon emissions airline” just five months after their inclusion on the EU top 10 carbon emitters list – and they are far from the only Irish company to employ misleading marketing campaigns.
“The Origin Green programme in Ireland is a clear example. It’s run by Bord Bia, but many Irish agricultural companies are participants,” says Whyte.
“Bord Bia has a conflict of interest because it’s simultaneously generating metrics to try and show how sustainable Irish agriculture is, and also acting as a marketer for Irish products abroad.
“Bord Bia publishes figures showing that the amount of emissions generated per litre of milk produced in Ireland has gone down – while failing to mention that overall production of milk has increased dramatically over the past decade, so that aggregate emissions are growing relentlessly.
Bord Bia has been contacted for comment on this but The City is yet to receive a response.
“On an international level, fossil fuel companies seem to be particularly assiduous greenwashers,” says Whyte.
In Whyte’s view, the corporate orientation towards shareholder profit as well as the greenwashing campaigns which justify these environmentally harmful business models need to be ended if we are to move towards a sustainable future.
“To end greenwashing there needs to be a reorientation of international trade law and corporate law in favour of stability and resilience rather than aggregate productivity growth, along with a massive recalibration of debts, the setting of hard limits on the supply of raw materials whose use breaches planetary boundaries, such as fossil fuels, and a shift in the overall focus of the economy away from increasing consumption and towards well-being.
“Companies can of course also set internal targets for becoming more sustainable in. But that doesn’t have as much effect on broader economic dynamics or on their own general orientation, and so it’s the weakest action of the three – although it gets the most attention right now.”
The European Parliament have taken steps to address greenwashing through the introduction of the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities in order to define and categorise which economic activities can genuinely be categorised as sustainable.
The full list of sustainable activities is set to be completed in December of this year.