An investigation reveals how fossil fuel companies are using social media posts to ‘delay’ climate action.
Featured: an advertisement for a famous car brand, in which young people from minority communities drive through tranquil, green vistas of the Italian countryside. It is as mystical as it is beautiful — the car, the people and the brand merge into one aesthetic.
But the aesthetic is our collective undoing and betrays the extent to which corporate greenwashing – a tactic used by powerful corporations to disguise environmentally unfriendly or ineffective moves as sustainable cleverly deceives people about climate protection. A global investigation conducted by Harvard researchers and recently published by Greenpeace revealed the tricks used by fossil fuel retailers, airlines and car brands to present themselves as climate-conscious through their social media messages.
The path to their “green” madness falls into a template where companies freely employ visual imagery and verbal codes to signal false commitment to things people care about. They abuse sustainability-related hashtags and terms like “green innovation” are hyperactive–focuses on individual CO2 emissions and appears to feature non-female, non-binary, non-caucasian people in its ads. The level of deception is far more notorious and harmful than people realize, seeping into the very nature of how we deal with our digital lives.
The report entitled Three shades of green (wash), presents an in-depth review of the levels and scale of greenwashing on social media. The Harvard University researchers looked at around 2,325 articles published on the five horsemen of the apocalypse: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. The period observed was the summer of 2022, between June 1st and July 31st – the duration coinciding with debilitating heat waves, flooding and extreme weather events in Europe and globally. The focus was in particular on companies accused of their CO2 emissions: 12 car brands (including Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz), five airlines (including Lufthansa and Air France) and five of the largest fossil fuel companies (Royal Dutch Shell and Repsol).
“Our findings show that while Europe experienced its hottest summer on record, some of the companies most responsible for global warming are staying silent on social media about the climate crisis, choosing instead to shun language and images use to strategically position themselves as green, innovative, charitable brands,” said Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and lead author of the study.
Social media, Supran warned, “is the new frontier of climate cheating and delay.” According to previous surveys, Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to engage with climate change content on social media than previous generations. This is a double-edged sword, because misinformation and targeted manipulation by companies dilute knowledge. Research shows that Gen Z struggles to separate fact from fiction online. This is also a group that is more concerned with making sustainable purchasing decisions, an insight that companies and brands are using for profit.
Associated with The Swaddle:
Why renaming retailers ‘Woke’ is disingenuous
67% of companies used social media to talk about “green innovation” without meaningfully acknowledging the climate crisis (only 0.3% of companies explicitly referred to “climate change” or “global warming”). In this train of climate marketing, there was also a haunting climate silence.
And as many as one in five of these companies meddled on issues related to social justice, sports justice and sustainable fashion to divert attention from the for-profit nature of these organizations. “… many of these companies are distorting reality by devoting more online airtime to sports, social issues and fashion than to their multi-billion dollar fossil fuel businesses,” said Amina Adebisi Odofin, senior activist at Greenpeace. This is indeed a bias because what is brushed aside is the fact that 20 fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) companies were directly responsible for more than a third of all carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions from airplanes are also expected to triple by 2050.
That’s the problem with deception as a greenwashing strategy: “It’s designed to shift the customer’s focus from a company’s appalling behaviors to something marginal,” as Jason Ballard, CEO of a sustainable home improvement brand, said back in 2017. The shift does this by using rhetorical strategies like whataboutery, free-rider excuses (that market failures or the inefficient distribution of goods or services are to blame, not the companies themselves), and making climate action an issue led by the people themselves believe that it is their individual choices that are solely responsible for changing the world.
In several cases, particularly from car brands, the social media posts weren’t even trying to sell a product. The result is immediate and obvious: the companies most likely to be responsible for carbon emissions are positioning themselves as “green” instead of actually selling anything. “Green intent” never meets behavior — however, it hits engagement, online reach, and even profits. Climate fraud is indeed great marketing.
Greenwashing is not a new moral malaise. It was articulated in societal discourse as early as the 1980s, when scholar Jay Westerveld questioned a resort’s marketing tactic that encouraged guests to reuse towels to help protect the environment.
Around the same time, Chevron, one of the world’s leading energy companies, ran an ad documenting a wondrous species of butterfly that was able to thrive in one of the company’s sanctuaries. The campaign later won an award for its altruistic impact, but context was key to understanding this false type of climate awareness. Chevron’s benevolent claims to protect this land “were mandated by law and did not spring from an altruistic sense of environmental protection. Also, it’s not true as many studies have shown the devastating side effects of oil and oil refineries on wildlife and their habitat,” as Angela Franco noted.
Associated with The Swaddle:
Amazon, Nestlé among 25 major companies exaggerating climate action: study
This pattern becomes even more nefarious when you consider how deliberate and strategic the deception is. Previous reports suggest that some fossil fuel companies knew about climate change and its devastating effects as early as 1977, 11 years before it was fully cemented in the public discourse; Instead of taking responsibility, they began bracing themselves against the impact while continuing to damage the planet. Supran demonstrated this in 2017 by showing how ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil companies, systematically misled people about climate science and its implications through internal company documents and paid for, editorially designed ads in publications such as The New York Times.
It was still easier to spot outrageous claims about capitalist enterprise being made in the name of environmental goodwill. These played out through ads and marketing campaigns – such as Coca-Cola claiming to recycle a bottle for every bottle sold, despite being responsible for a large chunk of the world’s plastic waste.
But as Franco pointed out, greenwashing was normalized for a number of reasons: “nonexistent laws to codify and define the practice; consumer enthusiasm to do anything that remotely sounds or appears to help the environment in these times of irreversible climate change; and the use by companies of more strategic, vague language in marketing that has made greenwashing harder to spot and why it’s more prevalent than we think.”
The current investigation shows a field manual of sorts on how climate deception is becoming part of a brand’s communication language on social media, blurring the lines between intention, representation and exploitation. “Companies used various images of nature, women presenting, non-binary presenting non-Caucasian people, youth, experts, athletes and celebrities to amplify their messages of greenwashing and deception,” the report continues.
It might seem harmless for young people to enjoy the scenery while supporting a brand notorious for fraudulent claims about diesel emissions. It’s anything but: Because these social media posts, which may or may not be related to the company’s products or work, have the potential to affect how people perceive the brand. Worse, it creates a false sense of complacency – one that reverberates ad infinitum on social media – that climate protection measures are taking place. We are programmed to crave performative and symbolic actions, even confusing them with climate science.
“This clear sportswear and washwear increases sales of climate-damaging products and fuels international conflicts and human rights abuses around the world. If we are serious about tackling the climate crisis, we need a ban on fossil fuel advertising,” argued Odofin.
Social media is just the new place to manipulate our understanding and efforts around the climate crisis. Greenwashing has always been about deception, but the manipulation is now happening on a large scale.