The carbon revolution is being advertised, but it’s not really happening.
In fact, the total carbon footprint of Apple’s products is rising very fast, says academic and author Guy Pearse, from University of Queensland. “It’s the world’s biggest company, it’s selling itself as green and its emissions have doubled in two years.”
He suggests Apple replace its slogan with “something closer to the truth, like ‘More Products. Bigger Impact’.”
This example is just one of scores uncovered by Dr Pearse in his new book Greenwash: Big Brands and Climate Scams.
Until now, the greenwash debate has spotlighted sins in the marketing of individual products. Dr Pearse took a different tack: he chose to investigate the companies’ total carbon footprint.
For four years, he subjected himself to mind-bending quantities of big business advertising material. He checked the fine print, trawled through hundreds of annual and sustainability reports and drew on documents lodged with the Carbon Disclosure Project. He analysed companies operating in all categories of consumer spending, from banks and beer, to sports and sweet treats.
His verdict is unequivocal. “When you look at the overall carbon footprint, almost none of these companies can claim their emissions will be falling anytime soon. It was a very depressing picture. The climate-friendly revolution being advertised is not really happening.”
Even worse, he says, most big businesses are using an identical greenwashing template to create the opposite impression.
Typically, a company will exclude the impact of the products they actually sell and, instead, only count the environmental impact of corporate headquarters. It’ll install low-energy lighting and solar panels, switch off for Earth Hour, and champion a glossy report.
“By narrowly defining your carbon footprint, you can give the impression the emissions of the brand are shrinking, when they’re growing,” he explains.
“The supply chains of these companies almost all lead back to the developing world, to countries that aren’t constrained by any carbon prices or emission caps. There’s a trail of emissions that’s being offloaded by the big brands.”
Another common tactic is to highlight a clean green product line, to the exclusion of the messy rest.
Take cars, for example. While some companies hype their hybrid or electric vehicles (the Holden Volt has just been released in Australia), they sell them in minuscule numbers, compared to gas-guzzlers.
“The growth that’s occurring in the market is such that the total emissions are going up dramatically,” he says. “Minor improvements in overall fleet efficiency will never lead to overall reductions in emissions from a growing industry.”
Or take Origin Energy, which got good coverage for its Green for Footy campaign with the Australian Football League. It’s the biggest retailer of GreenPower, but nearly half of its electricity generating capacity in Australia is coal-fired.
And, as Dr Pearse notes, it is part of a coal seam gas joint venture in Queensland’s Darling Downs, with a plan to export liquefied natural gas. He says Origin’s share of that scheme equates to “roughly eleven times the carbon footprint of the products [it] currently sells”, and dwarfs the emissions saved by all the renewable energy it has ever sold.
Dr Pearse says householders must understand that “we can’t shop the planet green”. But he argues that individual action – reducing consumption – isn’t sufficient either.
“Ultimately this book is all about why the politics matters and why we need to be angry and active. Real step-changes are the only things that will lead to the emissions reductions the scientists say are essential.
“They’re not going to happen while we’re kidding ourselves with greenwash. The incremental change being embraced by big business just isn’t going to cut it. It’s a reality check that consumers, governments and environmental groups need to have.”