Greenwashing coal

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This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.

The U.S.-based watchdog group CorpWatch defines greenwash as "the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment." This definition was shaped by by the group's focus on corporate behavior and the rise of corporate green advertising at the time. However, governments, political candidates, trade associations and non-government organizations have also been accused of greenwashing. [1]

The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined greenwash as "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. Derivatives greenwashing (n). Origin from green on the pattern of whitewash." [1]

In 2008 the environmental group Greenpeace launched a website Stop Greenwash to "confront deceptive greenwashing campaigns, engage companies in debate, and give consumers and activists and lawmakers the information and tools they need to ... hold corporations accountable for the impacts their core business decisions and investments are having on our planet." [2]

Examples of coal greenwashing

  • LoraxAg: In November 2009, it was reported that LoraxAg, a company based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, had raised $1 million toward an initial $4.5 million funding target in order to make farm fertilizer from high-sulfur coal.[3] According to press reports, the $1.6 billion plant would produce urea and ammonia for fertilizer, and sulfuric acid for industrial users. The founders are Mike Farina, former COO and CFO of Atlantic Energy Ventures, Joshua E. Davidson, a telecommunications executive, and Michael Sununu, son of former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.[3] The company had chosen two likely locations for the plant, one in Kentucky and one in Illinois. The project would use coal gasification technology from Siemens AG.[3] The name chosen by the founders for their company, LoraxAg, was based on the Dr. Seuss children's book The Lorax. According to Mike Farina, "The Lorax is the protector of the truffula trees. We think this is the greenest use of coal."[3] Blogger Brad Johnson criticized the choice of names, calling it a "shameless act of greenwashing." After being informed by Johnson about the name, Dr. Seuss Enterprises lawyer Karl ZoBell stated that he had been unaware of the project.[4] Dr. Seuss Enterprises sent a cease-and-desist letter to LoraxAg.[5]
  • Frosty the Coalman carols: In 2008, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) launched a campaign on its America's Power websited that used interactive Flash technology, allowing visitors to the website to dress lumps of coal in winter outfits, select a background, and listen to traditional carols altered with coal-friendly lyrics. The carols included "Frosty the Coalman," "Clean Coal Night,: and "Deck the Halls (with Clean Coal!).” The lyrics of “Frosty the Coalman” were as follows:[6][7]
Frosty the Coal Man, is a jolly happy soul.
He’s abundant here in America and he helps our economy roll.
Frosty the Coal Man, is getting cleaner every day.
He’s affordable and adorable and helps workers keep their pay.
There must have been some magic in clean coal technology,
For when they looked for pollutants there was nearly none to see.
  • Coal ringtones: In 2009, The West Virginia Coal Association posted six "Coal is West Virginia Ringtons." The tunes were based on "New Orleans Mix," "Male Voice Choir (Up Tempo Mix)," and "Gospel Mix." A typical lyric is "Coal is West Virginia / Coal is me and you / Coal is West Virginia / We've got a job to do / Coal is energy / Coal is energy / We need energy."[8]
  • Clean coal: The coal industry's use of the term "clean coal" dates to the 19th Century, when it referred to high-quality anthracite or "smokeless" coal. In 1895, newspapers in Chicago and southern Illinois featured advertisements for "clean coal."[9] A 1918 speech to the United Mine Workers by Frank Keeney was titled "Clean Coal the Keynote for an Early Victory."[10]

The allure of greenwashing

TerraChoice and the Seven Sins on CBC Newsworld

TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company, conducted a study which found that almost all of the environmental claims made for consumer products are false or misleading. Organizations are attracted to engage in greenwashing for a wide range of reasons including:

  • attempting to divert the attention of regulators and deflating pressure for regulatory change;
  • seeking to persuade critics, such as non-government organisations, that they are both well-intentioned and have changed their ways;
  • seeking to expand market share at the expense of those rivals not involved in greenwashing; this is especially attractive if little or no additional expenditure is required to change performance; alternatively, a company can engage in greenwashing in an attempt to narrow the perceived 'green' advantage of a rival;
  • reducing staff turnover and making it easier to attract staff in the first place;
  • making the company seem attractive for potential investors, especially those interested in ethical investment or socially responsive investment.

It is worth mentioning is that the Terrachoice study is possibly also a case of 'greenwashing' (see discussion [2] for details.

Rough rules of thumb for detecting greenwash

Big budget greenwash campaigns are designed to defuse scepticism of journalists, politicians and activists. Some rough rules of thumb for testing whether the claims made by a company, government or NGO stack up are:

  • Follow the Money Trail: many companies are donors to political parties, think tanks and other groups in the community. Few companies actually disclose in their annual reports exactly whom they are donating to, even though it is shareholders money. Ask about all their donations, not just those they boast about in glossy documents such as the corporate social responsibility reports.
  • Follow the membership trail: Many companies boast about the virtues of their environmental policy and performance but hide their anti-environmental activism behind the banner of an industry association to which they belong. Find out what industry association companies are members of and check and see what their policies are. Assume that all individual companies support the trade associations policy positions until such time as they publicly state that they don't agree with them or they resign. (See the article on the third party technique, a central plank in most PR campaigns).
  • Follow the paper trail: Most companies, or their trade associations, will make submissions to government and other inquiries on a wide range of issues. Often these submissions will be posted to a website. They will also send lots of letters to politicians and government agencies, which can be accessed by Freedom of Information Act searches. Ask about submissions made by the company and their lobbying on issues you are interested in. You will probably discover that instead of lobbying for tougher environmental standards, they are busy trying to weaken the ones that exist.
  • Look for skeletons in the company's closet: Every company has major problems that it doesn't want the public and regulators to know about. Some companies include information in the annual reports about problems that have been in the news in the last year. More often, there will have been problems, occasionally reported in the media, which they don't want to tell shareholders about. Check for information on the company with watchdog groups and in the media and compare that with what they disclose.
  • Test for access to information: Many companies will make lofty claims about their commitment to transparency and providing information to 'stakeholders'. Don't just take them at their word. In their reports they will probably refer to environmental impact statements, reviews, audits, monitoring data and other information. If it relates to an issue you are interested in, ask to see it. And remember that 'commercially confidential' is just corporate speak for 'no'.
  • Test for international consistency: Most companies will operate to different standards in other countries. Check and see whether their operating standards and procedures are consistent or whether they opt for lower standards where they think they can get away with it.
  • Check how they handle their critics: Some companies go to extraordinary lengths to try and silence their critics. This can involve everything from legal threats (see the article on SLAPPs) to funding and collaborating with police and military forces.
  • Test for consistency over time: It is common for a company to launch a policy or initiative and then starve it of funds. Or a company will make promises when they are under public pressure but never implement them when the spotlight fades.

Case studies

Books & reports

SourceWatch resources

External links

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Greenwash Fact Sheet, CorpWatch, March 22, 2001.
  2. [1], Greenpeace, May, 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Rodney H. Brown, "LoraxAg lines up $4.5M for clean coal gas plant," Mass High Tech, November 30, 2009
  4. Brad Johnson, "'Green Coal' Company LoraxAg Dirties Dr. Seuss Legacy," The Wonk Room, January 27, 2010
  5. Sarah Gilbert, "The Lorax Speaks for Dr. Seuss, Saying 'Cease and Desist,'" DailyFinance, February 4, 2010
  6. John Byrne, "Coal industry creates holiday flash presentation to sell dubious technology," The Raw Story, December 10, 2008
  7. Ryan Powers, "'Frosty the Coalman': King Coal Launches Holiday-Themed Greenwashing Campaign," Think Progress, December 10, 2008
  8. Amanda Turkel, "Get your coal ringtones!" Think Progress, May 6, 2009
  9. Jeff Biggers, Reckoning at Eagle Creek (Nation Books, 2009), page 226
  10. Rod Adams, "'Clean coal' history lesson," Atomic Insights Blog, March 11, 2007, citing the book by David Alan Corbin, The West Virginia Mine Wars (Appalachian Editions, 2nd edition, 1998)

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