Greenwashing Puts the Best Public Face on Corporate Irresponsibility
“Do people keep an eye on little things so we don’t lose sight of the big picture? People do!”
—an environmental image ad for Chevron
“People do. So do dogs. Then we have to clean up after them.”
—Environmental mandarin David Brower
Sea lions applaud a passing oil tanker with their flippers, to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” A young girl talks about her dad’s tree planting for a timber company. An animated dove flits from smokestack to smokestack as a voiceover speaks about chemical companies cleaning up their acts. A young woman regrets her college anti-nuclear activism, now that she “realizes” nuclear power is the non-polluting answer to global warming.
If you haven’t seen these ads for Dupont, International Paper, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) or the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, you’ve probably seen similar ads for other industries aimed at convincing you that today’s corporations have a deep and abiding commitment to a clean and healthy environment.
These ads are, according to critics, part of a larger, $1 billion-dollar campaign they refer to as “greenwashing,” an effort to present polluting industries as environmental advocates. Greenwashing is said to go well beyond print and broadcast advertising to a comprehensive public relations effort designed to advance industry’s agenda.
The key to greenwashing, claims John Stauber, publisher of PR Watch magazine and co-author of Toxic Waste is Good for You, is a “good cop/bad cop” approach to the environment. Companies take on corporate ad campaigns and high-profile partnerships with mainstream environmental group—while simultaneously lobbying to gut green laws.
“What I see when I look at greenwashing,” says Stauber, “is that the PR experts and anti-environmental strategists who work for corporations have got the upper hand and are now doing a very effective job of managing environmental activism.”
The companies claim they’re simply responding to pressure. “When you see corporate America doing green advertising, it’s because they get hit so often by the environmental community. You have to let the public know what good you’re doing,” counters Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates, a Los Angeles-based PR firm that numbers oil and auto interests among its clients, and which recently helped defeat an electric car mandate in California.
Industry’s investment in green PR got a major boost following the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak that killed 3,000 people in Bhopal, India and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, both major PR disasters according to Dash and others involved in what they call “green communications.”
The greatest boost to green PR, of course, has been the rapid growth of environmental values among the American public over the last 35 years. This new green ethic reached a crescendo in April 1990 when millions of citizens participated in rallies and protests marking the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. While right-wing media including The National Review, Conservative Digest, Human Events, and a Heritage Foundation report attacked Earth Day environmentalism as “pitiless and messianic as Marxism” with “a consciousness alien to all that is human,” Fortune Magazine tried to reassure its readers that environmentalism would become “more cooperative than confrontational—and with business at the center.” O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, a trade publication, added that one way or another, the environment would be, “the life-and-death PR battle of the 1990s.”
Buying Earth Day?
The original 1970 Earth Day had its roots in the anti-war youth culture of the 60s, and even prompted FBI surveillance. The 1990 event by contrast was seen as largely benign, if somewhat over-hyped, by corporate promoters. Advertisers (and industry trade groups like CMA) publicly declared themselves Earth Day believers. Several companies, including ARCO, Monsanto, Texaco, British Petroleum and Peabody Coal, made direct contributions to Earth Day activities and events.
It would be reassuring to believe that the green interest reflects a significant change in corporate attitudes. Interestingly, however, while some large companies-like clothing-maker Patagonia-have made concern for the environment part of their core operations, most of the green-image ads seen in print and on TV are placed by major polluters in the oil and chemical industries.
CMA, for example, runs ads for “responsible care,” a voluntary program in which each member company evaluates its own environmental performance. CMA’s involvement began after the environmental black eye that chemicals companies suffered following the Bhopal disaster. In the real world of public policy, CMA has been in the forefront of anti-environmental lobbying, most recently fighting to eliminate the Community Right to Know Act which, among its provisions, requires companies to inform the public about the 650 toxic chemicals companies release into neighboring communities.
The emergence of “green consumerism” around Earth Day 1990 also had a tremendous impact on marketing. Between 1986 and 1991, “green” product rollouts exploded from 60 per year to more than 800. Along with Rainforest Crunch ice cream and vinyl Earth beach balls, well-established products were suddenly being relabeled as “environmentally safe,” “Earth friendly” and “recyclable.” Unfortunately, most of these product changes had more to do with promotion than production. Mobil Oil, for example, added a bit of starch to its “Hefty trash bags” and relabeled them “bio-degradable.” A task force of state attorney generals later concluded that, when buried in landfills, the Hefty bags remained intact (although if left in the sun they would “biodegrade” into smaller bits of plastic).
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,” says 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. “We felt that what people most wanted oil companies to do is be environmentally responsible,” Soblin explains. His beautifully shot ads show Chevron employees protecting natural habitats for a range of wildlife including kit foxes, grizzly bears, egrets, eagles, elk and fish.
What the ads don’t explain is that most of these habitat protection projects are legal “mitigation” that Chevron is required to carry out under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and other laws before it can de
stroy other habitats with its drilling operations. In addition, as a member of the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron is actively lobbying Congress to gut the very laws that force it to protect these habitats in the first place.
Where it Began
An early example of greenwashing came in the wake of the first Earth Day when, in 1971, Keep America Beautiful, a coalition of companies involved in glass, aluminum, paper, plastic, tobacco and solid-waste, ran ads showing Native American actor Iron Eyes Cody with a tear running down his cheek at the sight of roadside litter. These TV spots, which received over $25 million per year in free air time, moved a generation to stop throwing garbage out of their car windows, while also sending the message that individual consumers were most responsible for pollution. Even as it told the public to “put litter in its place,” KAB opposed a national bottle bill that would have created a recycling deposit for glass bottles. (Some internal KAB reformists are now trying to get the agency to be friendlier to bottle bills and recycling.)
A similar campaign is now being waged by the newly-formed Foundation for Clean Air Progress (FCAP). Established last year by transportation, energy, manufacturing and agricultural groups lobbying for a relaxation of standards in the Clean Air Act, FCAP operates out of the Washington, D.C. offices of Burson-Marsteller (the public relations giant which established the National Smokers Alliance for its tobacco clients). FCAP’s emphasis on personal responsibility for air pollution, by industries lobbying against legislative solutions, is a natural extension of the KAB campaign, which also inspired Coor’s Pure Water 2000 campaign and Tread Lightly, a purported conservation program sponsored by sport utility vehicle (SUV) manufacturers to fend off criticism of environmentally destructive off-road activities. Honda, Toyota and other Tread Lightly sponsors also fund the efforts of The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a Wise Use group fighting to open up more public lands and wilderness areas to off-road vehicles, logging and mining.
In 1994, environmental leaders from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth and The Sierra Club unwittingly signed onto another coalition called Partners for Sun Protection, which was supposed to educate the public about skin cancer and other threats from the thinning of the ozone layer (caused by industrial chemicals). Its video news releases showed women wearing bikinis, shorts and tee-shirts applying sunscreen to reduce their risk of exposure. What some of the environmentalists didn’t know at the time was that Hill & Knowlton, the PR firm running the coalition, was doing so for its client, Scherling-Plough, the company that manufactures Coppertone sun lotion.
“What you need to do,” says Jeffrey Raleigh, director for environmental specialty at Hill & Knowlton, “is find out which groups already exist and then find out from them where they stand on the issue and bring them together [in coalitions]. You have more credibility if you do that.”
That sounds a lot like advice given by Ron Arnold, a founder of the anti-environmental “Wise Use” movement. In a speech to the Canadian timber company MacMillan Bloedel, Arnold advocated the formation of pro-industry grassroots groups, saying, “Give them the money. You stop defending yourselves, let them do it, and you get the hell out of the way. Because citizens’ groups have credibility and industries don’t.”
Playing on Astroturf
Hill & Knowlton, which took Arnold’s advice to heart, recently assembled a group of cancer patients in support of a proposed nuclear waste dump it’s representing (about one percent of the waste stored there would come from hospitals’ radiological equipment).
For many environmental observers, that’s a classic example of “Astroturf,” a term coined by former Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen to describe phony grassroots movements put together by major corporate interests to advance their agendas.
Astroturf groups range from violent fringe elements like the “Wise Use” movement (which grew out of a 1988 Reno, Nevada meeting between right-wing activists and public-lands resource industries) to scientific-seeming think-tanks like the Washington-based American Council on Science and Health (a food, drug and chemical industry group that posits itself an objective source of information on food, drugs and chemicals).
The latest example of one of these pro-industry front groups is Concerned Alaskans for Resources and the Environment (CARE), which was set up this year with $175,000 in seed money from the timber industry to advocate extending clear-cut logging permits in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. Astroturf groups often hide their real agendas behind warm and fuzzy names like CARE, which distort the meaning of language in a way rarely seen outside a Pentagon press briefing. Similarly named groups include The Environmental Conservation Organization, created by developers opposed to wetlands protection; People For the West, founded by the mining industry to defend the 1972 mining law; and the Global Climate Coalition, an oil and gas industry group established to fight the “myth” of global warming.
Why the name games? “People try to fudge a bit about their goals to create a patina of good-guyness,” PR man Hal Dash admitted in a New York Times interview. Dash’s firm, Cerrell Associates, was active in a successful campaign by the oil and auto industries to roll back a California mandate requiring that two percent of cars sold in the state have zero tailpipe emissions by 1998.
When a bill to facilitate this mandate by allowing utilities to invest in servicing electric cars went to the statehouse, The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) helped kill it. Rather than work openly against the bill, however, one of WSPA’s PR firms created Californians Against Utility Company Abuse, sending hundreds of thousands of letters to taxpayers attacking the “profit-making ventures” of the utilities—without identifying WSPA as the source of the group’s funding.
Takin’ it to the Streets
When letter-writing campaigns don’t work, Astroturf can also be rolled onto the streets. In the late ‘80s, during the Pacific Northwest’s “timber wars,” logging companies closed down their mills, providing free buses, box lunches and full pay to their employees to demonstrate against spotted owl protections that were limiting commercial logging on public lands. Some firms also paid their employees’ dues in local “Wise Use” groups to give the appearance of greater support than they could muster on their own. This anti-environmental tactic became a template for other industries fighting around other issues.
In the spring of 1994, the tobacco industry, taking its cue from timber, shut down its North Carolina mills and warehouses, busing some 15,000 of its workers to Washington for a protest against a health tax on cigarettes. Last April, Mitsubishi Motors, following the same script, bused 2,000 of its workers to Chicago to demonstrate outside a federal agency that had accused the company of sexual harassment.
Professional Astroturf contractors are now multiplying quickly inside the Washingto
n Beltway. One of the leading practitioners of the craft is Jack Bonner of Bonner and Associates, whose clients include GM, Exxon and U.S. Tobacco.
Bonner’s biggest success to date (one that earned him a high six-figure fee) involved mobilizing genuine grassroots groups like the Georgia Baptist Convention and Delaware Paralyzed Veterans Association on behalf of the auto industry’s fight against tougher fuel-efficiency legislation. B&A did this with mass mailing to farmers, senior citizens and others warning that if the standards passed, Detroit would be forced to stop producing vans, church buses and farm trucks.
Of course Washington politicians understand that much of the citizen input they receive is really Astroturf. But for politicians about to vote against broadly popular environmental, health, safety or consumer protections, it’s a lot easier to say they’re responding to a populist uprising among their constituents than to admit they are voting the agenda of their major PAC contributors from the timber, oil, auto or other industries.
The father of environmental communications is E. Bruce Harrison, a nattily dressed PR veteran who made a name for himself coordinating industry’s attacks on Rachel Carson after her landmark expose of chemical pesticides, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. Harrison established his own PR firm in 1973 (and recently sold it to PR giant Ruder Finn). Today, he is a strong advocate for corporate-environmental “partnerships.”
“It’s smart on two levels: it avoids legal problems, and it widens your options,” he wrote in the 1993 book Going Green: How to Communicate Your Company’s Environmental Commitment. In chapters with titles like “Mental Greening: The Habit of Thinking Like a Good Guy” and “What to Do When You’re Attacked by an Activist Group,” he suggests that companies meet with citizens who criticize them, listen but reveal little information, and research their opponents, even if it means hiring private detectives to spy on them.
A model corporate-environmental program Harrison cites was worked out between McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “In the late 1980s, the company slipped into its worst sales slump ever—and the anti-McDonald’s drive of green activists was at least partly to blame,” Harrison writes. But the agreement with EDF to do away with the company’s Styrofoam “clamshells” and reduce its waste stream “established a landmark precedent that may alter the way environmental protection is achieved, moving away from regulation and command and control, toward partnering (even with environmental activists).”
Hill & Knowlton’s Jeff Raleigh agrees that the McDonald’s/EDF partnership “worked to McDonald’s advantage from a marketing perspective. It took away a lot of the burdens that had been put on them. Fortune magazine now calls them one of the top environmentally concerned companies.”
“Companies need the environmental movement, and environmental groups take a lot of money from companies,” says Hal Dash (who represents McDonald’s). “What they want is access or cooperation, and why not?”
Because it’s destructive to the environmental grassroots, that’s why not, says PR gadfly John Stauber. “What people at EDF see as successful and important partnering with McDonald’s, the corporate folks see as a successful divide-and-conquer strategy,” he claims. “The corporations hope to establish endless dialogues, making sure whatever comes out doesn’t threaten business profits or fundamentally change things.”
Following McDonald’s lead, Anheuser-Busch and GM have run a series of ads touting their contribution to The Nature Conservancy, Canon is advertising its $1.2 million contribution to the National Parks and Conservation Association and Exxon (whose ads once promised to “put a tiger in your tank”) has contributed $5 million to captive zoo breeding programs and other efforts to “help save endangered tigers.”
But many companies like Exxon, Chevron, ARCO and Boise Cascade that advertise their contributions to environmental groups also fund and support “Wise Use” groups including People for the West and the Alliance for America. The 1995 annual Alliance for America “Fly-In For Freedom” brought 300 to 400 loggers, miners, small town developers and industry employees to Washington, D.C. to lobby against the Endangered Species Act. Publicity and security for the Fly-In was handled by Edelman Worldwide, a major PR firm, two of whose clients—the California Forestry Association and Western States Coalition—were also sponsors of the event.
While Edelman’s “Wise Use” efforts seem to confirm the good cop/bad cop strategy of greenwashing, it also reflects a larger mercenary reality: Most big PR firms today retain both “conservative” and “liberal” staffers to better reflect the particular biases of their various corporate clients.
Ironically, by choosing to greenwash their images rather than green their basic operations, companies undermine their own chances for long-term viability and survival. At the same time, by investing in advertising, lobbying and partnership programs designed to create the illusion that environmentally destructive practices are environmentally beneficial, they threaten America’s ecological health and safety. And by sponsoring PR disinformation campaigns, industry front groups disguised as citizen activism and militant social movements for hire, greenwashers may threaten our basic democratic institutions. And that’s the real bottom line.