Corporate profits depend heavily on destroying the environment. While cases of hydropower investments evicting communities and toxic waste being dumped into rivers make headlines, we don’t realise the full extent of how involved corporations are with ecocide.


The Usual Suspects

Although Elon Musk is a self-identifying environmentalist, owning the notable electric car company Tesla, his SpaceX facility is located next to a wildlife preserve which test vehicles potentially threaten. Now consider the supermarkets. Lidl’s affordability is linked to most of its products being packaged in non-recyclable plastic. While Sainsbury’s is ranked as one of the most sustainable UK food chains, benefit cuts like the recent chop to Universal Credit will push many to shop at cheaper places that are less eco-minded. Then there’s palm oil. Its versatility has funnelled its way into nearly 50 per cent of our packaged products, despite its production causing mass deforestation. Companies continue to use it despite rapeseed and sunflower oils existing as sustainable alternatives. My long-winded point here … is that the world has become so corrupted by the drive for profits that our environment is being willingly sacrificed to fill the pockets of business executives and quite a few government officials.

Disappointing Outcomes

COP26 was arguably the biggest event of last year when it comes to facing the challenges brought about by our unscrupulous use of the planet. Yet it seemed to demonstrate governments’ collective negligence towards environmental matters, more than their willingness to deal with them. General Assembly President, Abdulla Shahid, admitted that COP26 outcomes hadn’t fulfilled expectations. Declaring his disappointment and encouragement, Mr Shahid concluded that:

‘We must build on the momentum of COP26 and steer our progress towards more ambitious, more action-oriented NDCs at COP27’.

Australia’s Griffith University academics, Robert Hales and Brendan Mackey, likewise pondered on the question of whether COP26 should be deemed a failure:

‘If we evaluate this using the summit’s original stated goals, the answer is yes, it fell short. Two big-ticket items weren’t realized: renewing targets for 2030 that align with limiting warming to 1.5℃, and an agreement on accelerating the phase-out of coal’.

Due to a last-minute backtrack from India, agreements to fasten the phasing-out of coal were watered down in the final statement to the ‘phasing-down’ of coal.

Moreover, while COP26 saw many discussions regarding climate issues, such as transitioning from fossil fuels to sustainable energy and how costs would be shared between governments — whether via taxation, consumers, or the private sector — all these went largely unanswered, raising suspicions that the summit could deliver no more than empty promises. Veteran activists like Greta Thunberg were disappointed by the summit, labelling COP26: ‘a global north greenwash festival’.

Profiting from Consumers’ Ignorance

Thunberg’s choice of words — namely, greenwashing — won’t be understood by everybody. And it’s this obliviousness that industries exploit. In short, greenwashing is when a company prioritizes advertising their products as eco-friendly to maintain a positive brand image over investing money into implementing sustainable practices. In fact, most companies claiming to be green engage in greenwashing. Boohoo launched a clothing collection in May last year made from recycled plastic. Yet Good on You rated the online fast fashion brand ‘not good enough’ given that they don’t use eco-friendly materials, take meaningful action to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals, or even disclose the full extent of their greenhouse gas emissions. Boohoo is also considered amongst the worst in terms of labour conditions, having required employees to work during lockdown without PPE or social distancing, and in some cases, even when they had tested positive for Covid. Their recycled collection doesn’t seem so ethical now.

Boohoo is not alone though in its misleading marketing. International research by TerraChoice exposed that 98 per cent of North American brands they investigated were guilty of greenwashing; meaning the brands you’re wearing and using right now probably greenwash more than act sustainably. To make sense of how we’ve all been tricked by this, we can look to ‘The Seven Sins of Greenwashing’ to understand companies’ deceitful strategies:

1. Hidden trade-off:

This involves classifying a product as green based on a narrow set of information or attributes. As well as Boohoo, Garnier is trying to establish itself as an eco-friendly brand. Despite being officially approved as cruelty-free, its parent organization is L’Oreal, who still test on animals. Their cruelty-free approval is the result of legal loopholes that enable them to greenwash consumers while benefitting from L’Oreal’s other brands that sell in China and pay for animal testing.

2. No proof

Company marketing takes advantage of the fact that many consumers will believe claims without verifying them for themselves. These claims won’t be supported by factual evidence or third-party certification. We can see plenty of evidence of this in beauty products that label themselves as ‘cruelty-free’ without detailing who exactly they’ve been certified by.

3. Vagueness

This refers to claims that lack detail and are therefore meaningless. This happens when a product is deemed ‘all-natural’, which fools consumers into thinking this equates to being green. However, there are toxic elements such as mercury and uranium that could be present yet are naturally occurring.

4. Worshipping false labels

Companies will even create fake certifications or labels to try and legitimate their claims. For example, SC Johnson (who own Windex) created their own Greenlist certification which wasn’t verified by a third party.

5. Irrelevance

This is when unrelated environmental issues are utilized for reasons of comparison but have no real bearing on the matter. In the context of Singapore, waste is burnt, so biodegradable material product packaging doesn’t make a difference and is therefore irrelevant.

6. Lesser of two evils

This tactic will contain true information which is used to distract consumers from the environmental damage that a corporation commits. An example of this are the likes of BP and McKinsey & Co pushing the concept of sustainable aviation fuel to ‘decarbonize flying’. Yet, synthetic jet fuel production (currently the only realistic option for SAF) requires vast amounts of energy that is likely to prolong fossil fuel extraction and burning to meet demand. As well as this, it still releases the same quantity of CO2 as fossil fuels when burnt.

7. Fibbing

Lastly, companies make environmental claims that are straight-up lies. An example of this is the 2015 Volkswagen scandal, in which the carmaker installed a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested to change their performance accordingly. Admitting to having cheated many US emissions tests, Volkswagen attempted to market their vehicles as having low emissions.

Since environmentalism doesn’t coincide with capitalism, much of greenwashing remains hidden because awareness of it goes against governments and companies’ interests. By becoming informed consumers, we empower ourselves in knowing the truth behind the packaging. We also end up making wiser, more ethical, choices that don’t exploit human labour or promote animal testing, and that cause less environmental damage in the long run. While ‘buycotting’ might feel pointless, especially against corporate giants reporting billions in annual revenue, the message is to begin investing in smaller companies that uphold your moral stance and ethical values. Hopefully, these will one day gain more traction due to growing demand.