Introducing... The Eight Great Greenwashers

The Rio+20 agenda isn’t hijacking itself. Here, in no particular order, are some of the organizations that are determined to seize the controls by twisting the language of sustainability to suit their own plans.

This special report was published in the June edition of the New Internationalist on the Rio Earth Summit. Buy this issue or subscribe from just £7

Royal Dutch Shell – working while you sleep

How it wants to be seen: ‘We are working to produce cleaner energy, to create social benefits, and to integrate social and environmental concerns into the way we do business.’

How it behaves: Like an exterminator who pledges to solve your infestation problem by cutting down the number of rats that he’s releasing secretly into your house each night.

Core business: Getting oil and gas out of the ground. Shell pumps over three million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Earlier this year, it was the first foreign company to sign a gas-fracking contract in China. It’s also aiming to be the first company to drill offshore in vulnerable Arctic habitats and is trying to open two massive new tar sands mine extensions in Canada in the face of fierce legal challenges from First Nations communities. Tar sands are a kind of oily mud which requires highly disruptive, polluting and energy-intensive extraction methods. Burning the Canadian tar sands would use up 12 per cent of humanity’s remaining carbon dioxide ‘allowance’, taking us a big step closer to runaway climate chaos.5

Fig leaves and window dressing: Shell fielded a speaker at the pre-Rio Planet Under Pressure environmental science conference in London this March. Energy advisor Martin Haigh explained how Shell was preparing for a (distant) sustainable future by investing in biofuels and carbon capture. His words were somewhat pre-empted when two members of the audience invaded the stage at the start of his talk, holding up a banner reading ‘No More Greenwash’.

Hopes for Rio+20: Shell is part of Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), which is pushing for voluntary measures rather than environmental regulation and which holds that new technology should be one of the most important factors in creating a ‘green economy’.

Key source: Indigenous Environmental Network and UK Tar Sands Network, Get the Shell out of the Tar Sands

Monsanto – genetically modified greenwash

How it wants to be seen: ‘Producing more. Conserving more. Improving lives. That’s sustainable agriculture. And that’s what Monsanto is all about.’

How it behaves: Like a comic book baddie adding mystery contaminants to your water supply – and then asking you to pay them for the trouble.

Core business: Monsanto is the world’s biggest producer of genetically modified (GM) seeds. GM crops come with a long list of promises which they rarely deliver – a major independent study looked at 13 years of GM crop use in the US, and found that GM soybeans and maize had produced yields no greater – and in many cases, lower – than conventional crops. At the same time, they had led to the far higher use of pesticides and herbicides, and the development of resistant ‘super’ strains of pests and weeds. But GM crops allow a small number of powerful companies unprecedented control over the world’s food supply – just six companies (including Monsanto) control the patents for all genetically modified food crops.

Fig leaves and window dressing: Monsanto claims to be doing its bit for climate change adaptation by developing ‘climate ready’ crops, which will be resistant to drought, flooding, extreme temperatures and so on. In reality, these are usually strains which have already been improved by farmers over generations of careful breeding, and then appropriated, changed very slightly and patented by Monsanto for sale back to those same farmers.

Hopes for Rio+20: Monsanto – both through direct lobbying and via industry groups such as CropLife International – will be pushing for an acceptance of the ‘need’ for high-tech crops (or ‘precision agriculture’) in any Rio agreement, and trying to stamp on references to the benefits of small-scale farming and technology transfer.

Key source: La Via Campesina and others Combating Monsanto

International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) – a profitable atmosphere

How it wants to be seen: ‘IETA members seek to develop an emissions trading regime that results in real and verifiable greenhouse gas emission reductions, while balancing economic efficiency with environmental integrity and social equity.’

How it behaves: Like the smooth-talking kid who persuades the teacher to let his bullying mates out of detention so that they are free to beat you up again.

Core business: To represent the interests of 155 oil corporations, mining firms, power companies, cement manufacturers, banks and other institutions which benefit from the existence of carbon trading as a money-making, climate change get-out clause. It uses its financial and political clout to try to water down climate laws and regulations, introducing clauses to allow emissions reductions to be deferred, avoided or fobbed off.

Fig leaves and window dressing: Carbon trading has delivered no significant emissions cuts anywhere in the world. The largest scheme in existence, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, has created no meaningful reductions in its first five years of operation, while creating large windfall profits for polluting industries and sucking up political time and energy that could have been spent on more effective solutions.2

Hopes for Rio+20: A hot topic at the summit is whether or not we should put a financial price on natural systems and processes. Carbon trading involves pinning a price tag onto the atmosphere itself, making it one of the biggest examples of this kind of pricing in the world. We can be sure that the IETA will push for bigger carbon markets with fewer regulations.

Key source: Friends of the Earth International, How Corporations Rule

Sasol – coal on a roll

How it wants to be seen: ‘Our operations are conducted with a sensitivity towards the economic, social and environmental needs of stakeholders. The business is a healthy mix of financial prosperity, balanced with environmental stewardship and social responsibility.’

How it behaves: Like someone pumping toxic waste in through your window and then claiming a government subsidy because it was slightly less toxic than the sludge they pumped in last week.

Core business: A petrochemical giant operating in 30 countries, Sasol is a world leader in coal-to-liquid technology, creating a liquid fuel that’s even worse for the climate than tar sands. The company is expanding into North American shale gas, with an eye to the gas-to-liquids market too.

Fig leaves and window dressing: Sasol is hiding its pollution behind dubious and unproven climate ‘solutions’ such as carbon offsetting, carbon trading, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS – capturing CO2 from power plants and factories and pumping it underground – has not yet been shown to work on a large scale and even its industry cheerleaders don’t expect it to be significant until at least 2030. Its main function at the moment is as a distraction tactic that helps companies like Sasol to persuade governments to let them carry on digging up coal by promising to build in CCS at some unknown point in the future.

Hopes for Rio+20: Sasol receives funding from the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism for reducing nitrous oxide emissions at some of its plants and has been seeking approval for further subsidies to switch some of its fuel use from coal to gas. It will be hoping for a corporate-friendly ‘green economy’ that creates more of these kinds of handouts to polluters.

Key source: Friends of the Earth International, How Corporations Rule

Vale – what’s mined is theirs

How it wants to be seen: ‘Vale is committed to the pursuit of sustainable growth... operating with respect for the natural environment and being an ethically and socially responsible company.’

How it behaves: Like someone holding a grand launch event for a daffodil they have planted on your front lawn, to distract you from the fact that they have dug up your back garden and trundled it away in the back of a truck.

Core business: The world’s second-largest metals and mining company. Based in Brazil, but expanding into new mining prospects worldwide, particularly in Africa. The self-reported CO2 emissions from its operations (not including the carbon in all the coal it digs up) rose from 15 million to 20 million tonnes between 2007 and 2010.

Fig leaves and window dressing: Vale has struck a profitable new seam of greenwash in the form of carbon offsetting – undertaking ‘carbon-saving projects’ in order to ‘cancel out’ emissions elsewhere in the world. It’s become adept at claiming subsidies from the United Nations’ official offsetting scheme – the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – for dubious ‘green’ projects such as mass monoculture plantations and ever-so-slightly cleaner steel plants.

Hopes for Rio+20: If the conference were to agree stronger measures to protect indigenous people’s rights to their land, or to tighten up the rules on offsetting, then Vale could be forced to act more responsibly. But if forest privatization schemes like Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) are pushed forward, this will allow Vale to buy the rights to the carbon locked up in forests, expanding its offsetting business and creating new sources of income.

Key source: Friends of the Earth International, How Corporations Rule

HSBC – the other kind of green

How it wants to be seen: ‘Achieving sustainable profits for our shareholders, building long-lasting relationships with customers, valuing our highly committed employees, respecting environmental limits and investing in communities.’

How it really behaves: Like a bank.

Core business: Making money out of money. Forbes ranks HSBC as the second-largest public company in the world, with an annual income of over $100 billion.7 Ethical Consumer, meanwhile, ranks HSBC as one of the least ethical banks on the planet, scoring a disgraceful 2.5 out of 20 for its investments in coalmining, offshore oil- and gas-drilling, tar sands, destructive mega-dams, tax avoidance, unsustainable logging, repressive regimes and the arms trade.

Fig leaves and window dressing: Between 2006 and 2011, the HSBC Climate Partnership (with EarthWatch and the WWF) funded forest conservation research and claims to have ‘motivated and engaged’ 100,000 bank employees on the topic of climate change. The bank also has its own Climate Change Centre of Excellence, to ‘evaluate the implications of climate change’ on the company.9

On a more sinister note, HSBC trustees manage the Malua Trust, which oversees a Malaysian rainforest conservation project called the Malua BioBank. This scheme is funded through the sale of ‘Biodiversity Conservation Certificates’ to companies that are destroying forests elsewhere and want to boost their green credentials – a kind of voluntary biodiversity ‘offsetting’ which also makes a profit for investors.10 This is exactly the sort of profit-driven, zero-sum conservation model which many activists fear might be legitimized by the Rio+20 summit.

Hopes for Rio+20: In addition to its role in the powerful business lobby groups the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and World Economic Forum (WEF), HSBC is involved in drafting a ‘Convention for Corporate Sustainability and Accountability’, to feed into the Rio+20 process.11 This gives it multiple routes to promote a free-market approach to the environment, creating new opportunities to invest in profitable technological ‘solutions’ and to speculate on the value of natural habitats and ‘ecosystem services’.12

Amyris – new polluting power plants

How it wants to be seen: ‘Amyris is passionately committed to addressing our sustainable energy needs with plant-based feedstocks to enable a smarter generation of renewable technology for the future.’

How it behaves: Like someone promising to reduce your motoring costs by turning all the food in your kitchen into enough petroleum to drive your car for five minutes.

Core business: Synthetic biology – or creating artificial organisms. Its main focus is on microbes that produce a hydrocarbon for conversion into vehicle fuel and other chemical products. These ‘living factories’ need to be fed, and Amyris has decided on Brazilian sugar cane as the cheap feedstock of choice. So, far from being an exciting new source of energy, Amyris’s new fuels are powered by giant monoculture plantations which are fertilized by fossil fuel products, have abysmal labour standards, and take up valuable food-growing land.

Recent projects: According to the technology research group ETC, Amyris has assembled a ‘constellation’ of potential suppliers and purchasers, including Proctor & Gamble, Chevron, Total, Shell, Bunge and big sugar processors Guarani. If past behaviour is anything to go by, this looks set to be the least sustainable biofuel supply chain imaginable, based on cheap labour, environmental cost-cutting, land-grabbing and corporate control.

Hopes for Rio+20: As well as participating in the usual side-events and lobbying opportunities, Amyris is testing its fuels in Rio de Janeiro’s own bus fleet in the run-up to Rio+20 and presenting the results to the summit.1 It is hoping that the summit’s definition of a ‘green economy’ is kept vague and continues to focus on technological solutions rather than social and political change.

Key source: ETC, Who Will Control the Green Economy?

The Bipartisan Policy Center – a technofixation

How it wants to be seen: ‘The BPC drives principled solutions through rigorous analysis, reasoned negotiation, and respectful dialogue.’

How it behaves: Like someone whispering in the ear of the Titanic’s captain: ‘Don’t worry. No need to change course. Our hull-mounted underwater iceberg-melting flamethrower is definitely going to be ready soon.’

Core business: It organizes conferences, meets with politicians and publishes reports. The aim is to influence public debate and policymaking, coincidentally creating a more favourable political climate for its sponsors – which include big oil, pharmaceutical and biotech companies – and new business opportunities for its members.3

Recent projects: BPC has become increasingly strident in its calls for climate ‘technofixes’ such as nuclear power and geo-engineering – tinkering with the planet’s natural systems in an attempt to curb the effects of climate change. Its task force on ‘Climate Remediation’ released a widely publicized report in 2011.4 This strongly recommended that governments start testing out ‘climate fix’ technologies such as ocean fertilization, spraying reflective particles into the atmosphere, and boosting the reflectivity of clouds. Coincidentally, the authors of the paper included a number of scientists who hold patents in geo-engineering technologies or who work for companies and foundations with interests in this area.

Fig leaves and window dressing: Climate technofixes provide perfect cover for those wanting to continue with business-as-usual; they create the impression that effective climate action is unnecessary because some kind of magical climate techno-solution is just around the corner. Thinktanks like BPC allow fossil fuel corporations, conservative ideologues, or those with big investments in polluting industries to promote unpopular ideas like geo-engineering at arm’s length, without tarnishing their own reputations.

Hopes for Rio+20: The influence of lobbyists like the BPC can be seen in the US government’s behaviour in the Rio+20 process. The US has pre-emptively demanded that a ban on geo-engineering should not be included in any Rio+20 agreement – even before anyone had a chance to propose any such thing!

Key source: ETC, Geopiracy report

  5. See for calculations and references
  6. Union of Concerned Scientists 2009
  11. csradialogue