Shell’s Oilsand “Greenwashing:” Yes, But No.
Clear communication about business ethics is pretty fundamental to everything else we want to do in the field, regardless of what our specific interest is. Words matter. Fraud is not the same as cheating. Condoning is not the same as commending. Blackmail is not the same thing as extortion.
In the interest of clarity, check out this story. It’s about corporate wrongdoing, wrongly named. It’s about an accusation that Shell Oil engaged in the form of misleading advertising known as “greenwashing.” And yes, they did mislead in the way they were accused of, but no, it wasn’t “greenwashing.”
Here’s the story, from the Vancouver Sun: Shell forced to pull ‘misleading’ ads promoting Canadian oilsands projects
A ruling by Britain’s advertising regulator against oil giant Shell has prompted a new World Wildlife Fund campaign denouncing the petroleum company’s “greenwash” tactics in promoting its Canadian oilsands projects.
The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority ruled Wednesday in favour of a complaint by the WWF’s British arm that a newspaper ad in which Dutch-based Shell described its Alberta oilsands operations as “sustainable” was “misleading” and violated ad industry codes for “truthfulness,” “substantiation” and “environmental claims.”
Shell has accepted the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling. So there’s not much disputing that did what they’re being accused of (i.e., making misleading claims in an ad.) But I’d dispute the claim that this is an instance of “greenwashing.” Greenwashing actually occurs when a company makes claims about its environmental performance that are technically true, but that are misleading in a particular way. Greenwash ads tend to mislead by highlighting one (true) environmental accomplishment in a way that distracts from (or covers up, hence the play on “whitewashing”) a checkered or even deplorable environmental record. (A good example is Ford highlighting its hybrid SUV’s, distracting consumers both from the environmental evils of SUVs in general, and from the company’s not-so-groovy environmental track record.) Now, Shell’s environmental record isn’t the best, so highlighting a “sustainable” project (if it were sustainable) might count as greenwashing. But the more obviously accurate accusation here is that Shell’s ad is straigthforwardly misleading about the environmental-friendliness of its oilsands operations. There’s no use of truth to cover up dirt, here. Just plain, old-fashioned misleading advertising.