As Earth Day celebrations unfolded across the globe this weekend, Denis Hayes, one of the founders of Earth Day, expressed his dismay at the "appalling" environmental messaging and greenwashing by oil and gas companies. At the same time, Big Oil continues to invest millions in marketing campaigns aimed at coopting climate change coverage to diminish its impact, despite minimal investment in genuinely sustainable activities.
Earth Day, which began in 1970 as a grassroots movement to raise awareness and demand action on environmental issues, has become a theatre for corporate greenwashing. While oil companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies have poured millions of dollars into promoting themselves as part of the solution to climate change. A recent report by London-based think tank InfluenceMap revealed that these companies spent around $750 million on climate-friendly marketing in 2021, while only 10% of their capital expenditures were used for "low-carbon" pursuits.
On Earth Day 2021, the Independent Petroleum Association of America President and CEO Barry Russell claimed that "the industry is leading the way to advance and implement new technologies to minimize our environmental impacts while we continue to provide the energy that drives our nation’s economy and way of life." When looking at the gap between the industry’s environmental messaging and its actual sustainable investments you see the depth of the deceit.
Over the last two years, the disconnect has been brought to the fore by multiple reports and investigations. For instance, Democratic representatives Carolyn B. Maloney and Ro Khanna accused the largest US oil companies of "greenwashing" their public image and failing to decarbonize quickly enough to meet climate change targets. In a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, they detailed the ways in which the companies had made insufficient efforts to decarbonize and pointed to documents showing that the industry is pushing natural gas as a climate solution.
A study published in PLOS One found that Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell have not taken substantial steps to transition to clean energy, despite increasing their use of terms such as "climate," "low-carbon," and "transition" in their annual reports. The researchers found scant evidence that the companies were investing in clean energy at a scale that would allow them to move away from fossil fuels. ExxonMobil generated no clean energy during the past decade, and BP's global renewables capacity only amounts to the equivalent of about two large gas-fired power plants.
Google has also been scrutinized for accepting $24 million in search ad buys from the oil industry over the last two years. A report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that 40% of this money was spent on ads targeting users searching for environmental terms like "eco-friendly" and "net-zero." These ads, which collectively received over 58 million views, allowed fossil fuel companies to dominate the information ecosystem and spread their deception to users seeking information about climate change.
Greenwashing lawsuits against major oil and gas companies are becoming more frequent, with claims that they have deceived the public and made misleading statements about their impact on climate change through their exaggerated or unsupported environmental claims. According to a report by Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, the total number of climate litigation cases nearly doubled from 884 across 24 countries in 2017 to 1,550 cases across 38 countries in 2020.
As legal disputes advance, the potential consequences include a surge in greenwashing litigation and the possibility of oil and gas companies facing trial over claims related to their environmental practices. In the past two years, Big Oil has seemingly become more cautious with its environmental assertions, likely as a response to litigation. Though, immense short-term profits and diminishing energy security have also emboldened the industry to abandon its eco-friendly facade. It is imperative for businesses to critically evaluate their public communications and marketing initiatives in light of emerging case law, statutes, and regulations, ensuring that they are backed by substantial evidence and data.
Despite the prevalence of greenwashing, Denis Hayes hopes that the true message behind Earth Day — the urgent need for action on climate change and biodiversity loss — will not be overshadowed by corporate propaganda. Protests and events took place across the globe for this year's Earth Day, with millions of people participating. Earth Day has played a crucial role in the past, with public pressure from the event credited for ensuring the passing of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Since then, Earth Day has become a global movement, with dozens of countries, including China, the US, and the UK, signing the Paris Agreement on Earth Day 2016.
Corporate green claims are being increasingly scrutinized in the US, EU, and the UK, with rules being tightened about what companies can say about the environmental credentials of their products and services. However, Earth Day has also become a focal point for greenwashing, which Hayes described as having "nothing to do with the original sentiments" of the event.
In response to the pervasiveness of greenwashing, activists, environmental organizations, and concerned citizens are taking action to expose misleading corporate practices and demand genuine commitments to environmental sustainability. Grassroots campaigns, education initiatives, and public demonstrations serve as a counterbalance to the greenwashing efforts of oil and gas companies and help to raise awareness about the true extent of their environmental impact.
To combat greenwashing, it is essential for consumers, investors, and regulators to critically assess the environmental claims made by corporations and hold them accountable for their actions. Transparency in corporate reporting, third-party audits of environmental practices, and stringent enforcement of environmental regulations are crucial in ensuring that companies are genuinely committed to mitigating climate change and preserving the planet for future generations.
As Earth Day celebrations draw to a close, it is important to remember the original purpose of this global event: to raise awareness about the urgent need for action on climate change and biodiversity loss and to hold corporations and governments accountable for their contributions to these pressing issues. By staying vigilant and demanding, each and every day, transparency and genuine commitment from companies, we can prevent Earth Day from being reduced to a Hallmark holiday or a polluters' propaganda vehicle, and ensure that its true message remains at the forefront of the global environmental movement.