How companies blame you for climate change

5th May, 2022.      //   Climate Change  // 

A girl sorts through recycling (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s an advert that is infamous in environmental circles. A man who appears to be an indigenous American paddles a canoe downstream. He starts in relatively pristine waters, but soon paddles alongside discarded newspapers, past industrial buildings, and finally pulls his canoe ashore on a bank littered with waste.

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” reads the voiceover. “And some people don’t,” it continues, as a motorist throws litter from their window, spilling at the feet of the canoeist. “People start pollution and people can stop it,” the voiceover concludes, as the camera zooms in on a tear rolling down the man’s cheek. The advert became known as the “crying Indian” campaign.

The advert was later heavily criticised for passing the responsibility of reducing litter pollution onto consumers (and for employing an Italian American actor to play the role of an indigenous American), but when it first aired in 1971 it won awards for its environmental message, says Finis Dunaway, professor of American environmental history at Trent University in Canada.

The advert was paid for by Keep America Beautiful, a group established in the 1950s by leaders from packaging companies like the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, and other public figures. Keep America Beautiful campaign against littering, but have also lobbied against bottle bills and legislation that would have required packaging to be returnable or recyclable rather than disposable, says Dunaway, who is also the author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images.

Rather than addressing the root cause of America’s litter problem – the fact that there was much more disposable packaging after World War Two – their advertising campaigns focused on the bad behaviour of some consumers, he says. “Images and feelings were being manipulated by corporations to put the onus on the individual.”

Initially, “environmental groups like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club – in other words big mainstream groups – were part of the Advisory Board for Keep America Beautiful”, says Dunaway. “Many of these groups resigned their membership. They no longer wanted to be associated with Keep America Beautiful after this ad, because they saw it as what we today call greenwashing.”

Similar criticisms have been levelled at terms like “carbon footprints” – which was first coined in a 2005 TV advert from BP. The advert appears to show members of the public being stopped in the street and asked what is “their carbon footprint”. Most look a bit perplexed. BP explains that the carbon footprint is “the amount of carbon dioxide emitted due to your daily activities – from washing a load of laundry to driving a carload of kids to school”.

The question of who is responsible for climate change is incredibly complicated, explains my colleague Jocelyn Timperley in an article  series. Is it the companies who supply goods and services or the consumers who create the demand?

On the one hand, 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in the past two decades can be attributed to 100 fossil fuel producers, according to a report from the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project). So their role is clearly important. But rich, Western consumers also contribute a disproportionate amount of emissions through the choices they make. Another assessment, co-authored by Diana Ivanova, a research fellow specialising in household consumption from the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds in the UK, suggests households contribute more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It depends on whom you hold responsible for Scope 3 emissions, which are “indirect” emissions resulting from using goods and services, for example.

But I am not just interested in whether it is fair to hold individuals responsible for climate change, I want to know how the debate was shaped in that direction. How did companies and corporations influence the language and images we associate with climate change?

Under attack

The Keep America Beautiful advert was broadcast a year after the first Earth Day in 1970. The climate was a hot topic; books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had inspired grassroots climate activists and the public had recently witnessed the awe-inspiring Earthrise image from the Apollo missions.

Young people were leading a resistance movement to climate change. Companies were “very much sensing they were coming under attack”, says Dunaway. Ahead of Earth Day in 1970, “the National Soft Drink Association [now going by the name American Beverage Association] sent out a memo to their members saying what to do if protesters showed up at [their] bottling plants to protest disposable containers. Their answer was to try to appease the crowd by handing out Coke.”

In Coming Clean, Future uncovers the tricks and misdirections that we should all look out for when we see claims about sustainability.

The series has looked at the adverts that were banned for misleading climate claims, and why corporate climate language often uses vague terms like “green”, “eco” and “natural”.

Our mission is to give you the tools to spot verifiable facts from meaningless buzzwords, and to provide a rational explanation of greenwashing tactics.

Cooperative approaches like this, often led by lobbyists or interest groups, showed companies could be effective in limiting new regulations. Public opinion could be shaped by the language and images brands used, and some of the wind could be taken out of public campaigns.

In 1992, the United Nations held the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference, which came to be known as the Rio Earth Summit, aimed to address inequalities in global development and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“Borrowing a strategy from the past, business recognised that the best defence against the environmental movements’ arguments for more government control over corporate activities was attack,” wrote James Rowe, now an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, in 2005. Corporate social responsibility, he says, became the “preferred strategy for quelling popular discontent”.

“The World Business Council emerged in response to the Rio Summit,” says Jessica Dempsey, a political ecologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It was this kind of moment of reckoning with the environment and development challenges that were coming to a head in the late 1980s.”

“The World Business Council was formed, like many other interest groups, to grow their power,” says Dempsey. “[They recognised] that they could be more influential in these multilateral forums if they worked together. So the world’s largest corporations were like ‘we should work together because we have interests that are at threat’.”

In response to this, “just before Rio, Stephan Schmidheiny, founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), pleaded with business that unless ‘we promote self-regulation… we face government regulation under pressure from the public’,” says Rowe.

The cooperative action was a success, Rowe continues. He quotes two representatives of the International Chamber of Commerce (who describe themselves as the “voice of world business”), as saying:

“In general, the feeling among business participants was that the substantive output of UNCED was positive. It could have taken a negative stance on… the role of business, and there was at one time the real possibility that the conference might be pushed to lay down detailed guidelines for the operations of transnational corporations.”

But, says Rowe, business “successfully fended off the threat”.

The WBCSD say the need for the “sustainable transformation of the systems that govern our world is… more urgent than ever before”. The ICC’s secretary general, John Denton, says “significant policy changes” will be needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. “We believe the best way to get those reforms right is to work hand-in-hand with the business community to design decarbonisation plans that work in the real world. Schmidheiny was asked to comment on his quote, but declined.

Without an agreement from the governments of the 179 countries represented at the summit for tighter regulations on fossil fuel use, it was left to companies, and the lobbyists who represent them, to self-regulate, writes Dempsey along with her co-authors Audrey Irvine-Broque and Adriana DiSilvestro in a paper from 2021. This is called free-market environmentalism.

Free-market environmentalism is based on a principle of economics called “self-interest” whereby if companies act in their own best interest their output will benefit the consumer. In the case of free-market environmentalism, if companies can win over more customers by acting in a sustainable way, then they will do so, and less responsible companies will be penalised by the market.

But free-market environmentalism assumes that consumers are able to tell which companies are acting responsibly (which as Coming Clean has covered in the past, can be difficult to tell, particularly when some advertising is misleading), and are motivated to choose the most environmental option – which might not always be the best or cheapest.

Companies might profit from promoting an environmental image without actually working to reduce their emissions, says Dempsey. “And that’s the big problem of greenwashing, which has now become widely understood as a real outcome of free-market environmentalism,” she says.

Dunaway gives another example of a method plastic packaging manufacturers have used to promote a sustainable image in a deceptive way: resin identification codes. You might be familiar with codes printed on plastics that look a little like recycling symbols but which have a number in their centre.

“The Society of the Plastics Industry [now called the Plastic Industry Association] took the recycling logo, which is in the public domain so it’s not copyrighted, and they made it a bit more triangular in shape and put numbers in it to create the resin codes,” says Dunaway. “It telegraphs to the consumer that this is something that is recyclable, and maybe perhaps even has been recycled before.”

The PIA insists that the resin identification codes were never intended as an indication of recyclability to be used by consumers.

However, of the seven different plastic resin codes codes – which each represent a different polymer, from high-density polyethylene to PVC – only a couple are widely recyclable and the others are either difficult or impossible to recycle.

Then there are those other companies who might make more money selling to consumers who are not particularly motivated by climate issues. “Increasingly there’s a recognition that [free-market environmentalism] failed, in part because it has been voluntary,” concludes Dempsey. “There’s still a lot of money to be made by not participating.”

Companies which produce “green” goods tend to have lower profitability, according to a 2020 report from Misato Sato, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, and her colleagues. This is in part because these firms operate less efficiently. Added to this, there is still a high demand for less-sustainable products, like SUVs, which are among the most popular models of car.

While it might seem harmless for the public to be encouraged to reduce their emissions and recycle, Dunaway warns it could have a downside. “The disconnect between the severity of the climate crisis versus so much focus on these little actions [like recycling or picking up litter], that not only distract from corporate responsibility, but also don’t seem to [make] a difference – it’s trying to encourage a feeling of empowerment, but I think it sometimes can actually be disempowering.”

Keep America Beautiful reprised the “crying Indian” figure in later adverts that repeated similar themes about indigenous people’s “reverence” for the land. While today these adverts look out of touch, they created a narrative that lasted for decades that climate change could be tackled from our own homes, concludes Dunaway.

While there is certainly more that we could all be doing, where should we be looking for more action on the climate?

“An important question is who has the most power and agency for a change that will bring sizable cuts to emissions quickly,” explains the University of Leeds’s Diana Ivanova. “Which really points the finger more to governments and corporations.”

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