Greenwashing the Tar Sands

suncor greenwash imageRegular readers will know that I have an interest in what’s often referred to as “greenwashing”.

Here’s a good example. An ad for Suncor (a big Canadian energy company) appeared in a recent issue of Canadian Business Magazine (May 10, p.24). The ad includes the obligatory green imagery (excerpted at left). The text of the ad reads as follows:

“As Canada’s premier integrated energy company, Suncor has achieved success by seening the possibilities. Developing Canada’s oil sands, as well as energy resources from coast to coast and beyond, brings us even more opportunity to take action on environmental issues. Just as innovation made oil sands production viable, new technology is helping us reduce our impact on air, land and water. For Suncor, seeing the possibilities is the first step towards responsible development.”

What makes this greenwash? Well, to start with, there’s the green imagery and allusions. The pretty picture, and the vague reference to “taking action on environmental issues,” etc. Put that against the backdrop of Suncor’s reality: the oil sands (a.k.a. “tar sands”) are an undeniably dirty source of energy, and more generally the company’s environmental record is far from stellar. Now, it’s worth noting that this ad goes beyond mere associative advertising. Suncor isn’t just trying to put its name next to a pretty picture of trees and fluffy clouds. The ad cites stats. In particular, it brags about:

  • “45% decrease in GHG [greenhouse gas] emission intensity at oil sands based on progress to to the end of 2008 compared to 1990 baseline.” Sounds good, but is it? How does that compare to other companies? Is that a legislated reduction, or voluntary?
  • “22% decrease in absolute water use at oil sands from 2003 to 2008.” Again, sounds good. But while “absolute” (i.e., total) water usage is important, a reduction in that doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement in methods. It could just as easily imply a change in overall production.
  • “$750 million actual and planned investments in renewable energy.” Again, a big number. But not quite so big once you consider that Suncor is a company with over $30 billion in revenues each year. And most importantly, notice that the $750 million includes planned investments. In other words, the company is taking credit for stuff it hasn’t done yet, or even (as far as we can tell) started.

So, what’s wrong with the ad? Are there any lies? Not literally, I think. And probably no lies in the sense of false claims that would be actionable under false advertising legislation. Is the misleading? Well, it’s certainly a rather glossy portrayal of a company engaged in a dirty business. So, like other examples of greenwashing, it’s a distraction from the truth. It attempts a bit of sleight-of-hand. Is a stage magician lying when he distracts you with the flowers in his right hand while his left hand dips into his pocket to retrieve the missing coin? No, not really. But then, the magician is offering entertainment, making our lives better. Greenwash offers a form of distraction that does little more than muddy the waters of discourse about corporate environmental responsibility.

(Thanks to Robin Hansen for showing me the ad and pointing out the greenwash.)

5 comments so far

  1. Robin Hansen on

    I suppose that lies exist on a spectrum ranging from a “literal lie” to a misleading statement (or omission).

    I looked up “lie” in the OED and (1989 ed.) and found “a false statement made with intent to deceive”. In the ad, the company writes of the opportunity that it has had [and has presumably utilized] to take action on environmental issues.

    I suspect that most advertizing these days in fact dances around topics, rather than makes concrete claims. This is because the convincing in advertising is often done at an impressionistic rather than literal (or logical) level. When companies are trying to increase their brand value, they don’t always do so by making literal claims about concrete features of the company or product. Rather, they advertise the brand by trying to get the brand associated with certain concepts or feelings. In other words, in trying to get your brand associated with concepts or feelings, you don’t need to necessarily make concrete claims. Instead you work through metaphor, symbols or implication. The Suncor ad has a picture of a seedling, with a green grassy background and a blue sky, symbolizing the promise of a green tomorrow, which is the concept that Suncor wants to get its brand associated with through this ad. (A green tomorrow is the opposite of what the tar sands symbolize for many people.)

    For me, the ad misleads the reader regarding the identity and main occupation of Suncor as a company. Are false statements being made in the ad? No. But this is because no substantive statements are actually being made in the ad. It is a pretty picture, some vaguely described numbers and some talk about “opportunity”.

    I think that one can lie by omission, if the intent to deceive is present. Here I think the intent to deceive is present because I judge the goal of the ad to be for Suncor to be seen by the public as a conservationist company that is reducing its impact on “air, land and water”. The reality is that Suncor is clearly a net polluter and dramatic user of air, land and water resources. The picture of the company presented in the ad is deliberately misleading enough for me to see it as a lie. It all depends on one’s definitions.

  2. Jim Gaa on

    I’ll try to shed some light on the underlying concepts. Although the topic is complex (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a 21-page article on the just the definition of lying and deception), in my information ethics course I follow Sissela Bok’s analysis.

    These are the relevant definitions:

    To mislead: to cause other people to believe what the agent does not believe or to act in ways they would not have acted. (I ignore the fine point that the agent may deceive by not taking action.)

    Deception: the communication of messages (by the deceiver)
    to others (the deceived)with the intention of misleading them

    Lie: an intentionally deceptive message which is stated, either orally or in written form

    According to these definitions:
    silence may be deceptive (particularly if an utterance is expected to be made if relevant information is available), but is not a lie

    images may be deceptive, but are not lies

    lies are not necessarily the utterance of false statements; lying is directly linked to truthfulness, not to truth. The focus is on the intention of the speaker, not the truth-value of what he/she says.

    So, even if everything BP does write in its ads is true, some of the statements may be lies; acts of omission (not stating material facts) may be deceptive, but are not lies; and the nice image of greenery may be deceptive.

    These distinctions may be found in some codes of professional conduct. For example, all the codes for accountants that I’m aware of forbid a member (of the organization) from being associated with any report that the member knows, or should know, tends to be misleading; and silence (acts of omission) does not make it OK. The truth of the report or statement (or non-statement) is not mentioned.

  3. Robin Hansen on

    These are very interesting definitions – thanks for taking the time to present them.

    I’m left thinking where the limits to this type of advertizing are. Companies advertize heavily to maximize brand value (and to safeguard corporate image generally). This type of advertizing shapes the public’s perceptions of particular corporate actors, with ramifications for both profit and public policy. Should there not be limits on the type of identity marketing that is permissible?

    While I think that such limits ought not to be solely based on speculation as to a company’s intentions in presenting a particular ad, there do not appear to be other ready ways of analyzing the ethicalness of such advertizing. I’m not aware of objective ethical advertizing standards in this area (i.e., that are not based on judging the company’s objectives in presenting the ad).

    The fact remains that companies market heavily with respect to their “non-commercial” conduct and persona. Pepsi has an interesting “do good” campaign currently, for instance; the back cover of the June Harpers magazine has an ad from Pfizer with the headline, “Working to Give those in Need Access to Medicines”. Companies have much to gain from being seen as environmentally (and socially) responsible. Ads used to build the corporate brand in this fashion tend not to make hard claims, or otherwise expose companies to legal liability. Where the law is silent, ethical analysis may help to set limits to how audacious green-washing (or “social-justice-washing”) is permitted to be.

  4. […] as well as things that no one agreed with. And in terms of topics, I’ve covered environmental ethics, workers’ rights, corporate governance, and much more. And my audience has been just as […]

  5. […] blogged about the tar sands and accusations of greenwashing, here: Greenwashing the Tar Sands.) — Thanks to LW for sending me this story. « Top Blog Entries of 2010 […]


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