We are only at the beginning of Greenwashing.
If greenwashing is receding in its most obvious forms, bullsh*t to make oneself GREEN has never been so prevalent. Désormais moins facile à détecter, le greenwashing a trouvé un bel allié : la neutralité carbone. Since the beginning of the year, many companies and states have announced their carbon neutrality. Sometimes for 2060, others 2050, the most optimistic 2030. With the champions of all categories, Nespresso, which announces its carbon neutrality for 2022! We’ll get to that…
How do we know if the announcements of carbon neutrality reflect a sincere approach, or if it is simply a lie, both on the intentions but also on the feasibility of this ‘carbon neutrality’?
Common sense and greenwashing guides
Unfortunately, we don’t all have the time to dig into the details of the action plans implemented and to judge the relevance of the ‘green’ communication of companies. That’s what they play on. Before attacking carbon neutrality, let’s first recall what greenwashing is: ‘greenwashing, also called greenwashing, is a marketing or public relations process used by an organization in order to give itself a misleading image of ecological responsibility‘.
More recently, there has been a generalization of the wokewashing, this practice to vomit of the brands which surf on the diverse facts to make them pass for angels. No need to remind the dozens of brands that have made the recovery of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, like Google that went so far as to put a black badge to identify more easily the businesses held by black people. What could go wrong.
Also, I draw your attention to these marketing practices that should not fool anyone anymore. Every time you hear the words ‘green’, ‘sustainable‘, ‘circular’, ‘mission-driven company’, ‘digital transition’, ‘ecological transition‘, the only reaction you can have is “”RED FLAG“”. These are often words that companies (and States) use to hide their societal deficiency. According to Olivier Cimelière, author of the blogducommunicant2.0, there are three reasons for brands to get out of their bubble:
The first is to protect their reputation: it has become impossible for them to remain as before. The second is related to human resources: the next generation is attracted by the company’s values. To attract and retain talent in a competitive world, we must evolve to attract young people and show them that the company defends their values. The third, less tangible reason is to create shared value. In other words, the company, which exists in a society and an ecosystem, has no interest in seeing it rot from within. This would limit its prosperity. It is therefore necessary to integrate these cultural differences, otherwise there is a risk that divisions will increase and interfere with economic development.
Follow the guide(s)
Following the numerous companies that have declared themselves “carbon neutral” in the last 2 months, I was going to undertake to make a guide on Greenwashing. Good news, there are already several! Here is a non-exhaustive list of guides (in French) that I could find:
- The ADEME guide, 29 very well documented pages to detect the most obvious greenwashing.
- The guide Pour un Réveil écologique, where some companies answered the questions by presenting their commitments (more or less respected one year later. Congratulations on this follow-up of the commitments, because in the end, this is what counts: actions).
- How to overcome greenwashing, by La Fabrique Ecologique
- A manual to detect greenwashing of Letemps
- Follow me on social media, mainly Twitter where I challenge brands and politicians directly, but also Linkedin and Facebook. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write an article every time, but I very often take back the brands that lie and the more support I get, the more they react.
PS: these guides are of course a first approach and the more experienced will perhaps have the impression to read ‘there is good and bad greenwashing’. The good news is that people specializing in the subject of carbon neutrality are writing reports and developing solutions to make it easier to navigate. If their work is conclusive I will update this article to help the readers as much as possible.
Finance, always greener
Like many fields, finance does not escape greenwashing. Over the past 10 years, the terms ‘ESG’, ‘Green’ and ‘Sustainable’ have been appearing everywhere. If you pay particular attention to what is going on in this field, you will not be surprised to see the most ‘polluting’ actors posing as angels. I had already challenged Antoine Sire on Twitter, Head of Corporate Engagement at BNPP… I was followed by 3 people from BNPP within 15 minutes. Coincidence.
I would like to draw attention to a crucial point over the next ten years. While this is not at all the case today, I feel that half of all bond issues will be ‘green’ in the next 10 years. In a report just published by Adelphi Research, we can see that the share of activities that are “aligned with the European taxonomy on sustainable finance”, i.e. to stay below 2 degrees (sic!), is extremely low, with at best, 2%:
-Do you think that shareholders and companies will accept to see the value of their assets fall completely because they are abandoned by investors? Or will there be a magical appearance of a ‘sustainable economy label’ to paint some companies green, raising this rate from 2% to 50%?
– Should we consider the BNPP ESG index, which includes companies such as Total, Schneider Electric, L’Oréal and Vinci, to be “GREEN”?
Let’s move on to the new ally of Greenwashing: Netzero communication.
Netzerowashing : or the art of polluting, while being neutral !
I hesitated for a long time with the title of this article which I initially wanted to call ‘Welcome to the Netzerowashing era! Unless you live in a cave, you must have seen in the press dozens of announcements of carbon neutrality of companies (and States) that have all lent themselves to the game. It’s quite simple: all the companies that have announced “net zero” since the beginning of the year, have systematically had a misleading communication, even openly deceitful. I do my best to highlight it on social media with others, but due to time constraints, it’s impossible to cover them all.
First of all, to help you find your way around, there are two reference frameworks, which allow you to better understand the issues at stake: the Science Based Target (with a glossary on page 37 which includes all the essential terms) and the NZI (Net-Zero Initiative) of Carbon 4:
These two guidelines (although imperfect) should serve as a basis for any company wishing to work on its carbon neutrality. I insist on the word ‘base’. These are not benchmarks with perfect criteria. Having a single standard imposed on all players (with ‘perfect’ carbon accounting) will take years. Problem: we don’t have time to wait. It is nevertheless very positive to see many players trying to impose their standards and methods: interest in the subject is growing, carbon neutrality will be challenged and everyone will win.
Points to remember when a company announces its carbon neutrality
How do you know if a company will be truly ‘carbon neutral’, i.e. that it reach a state of equilibrium between man-made greenhouse gas emissions and their removal from the atmosphere by man or his actions (the difference between emitted and removed gases being then equal to zero) ? It is then necessary to check several points:
- The announced date : the earlier the date, the greater the risk that it will not be respected (between 2022 and 2060, there is a margin).
- Neutral, but in what way? CO2 or GHG, so all gases combined? Because obviously it is not at all the same thing depending on your activity (hello flight companies who only count CO2, while their emissions are at least twice as important if we count all gases)
- What is the geographical scope ? Total has announced its carbon neutrality for 2050, but only in Europe. Are you confident too?
- What is the operational scope ? Perhaps the most critical point. This corresponds to the categories and items of emissions related to the activities of the organizational perimeter. The main international standards and methods define 3 categories of emissions.
- Depending on the sector, if there is no questioning of their business model or announcement of sufficiency/reduction of activities, it is surely a lie. For example, if Air France does not (at least partially) change its business model, they are lying, except if they bet on a magic flight pushed by the wind.
- Finally, pay special attention to ‘compensation‘, and how they compensate.
BONUS: If you want to find your way around more easily, here’s a chart that should help:
Compensate by planting trees or with the technology of the future? Easy !
As explained above, if a company wants to achieve carbon neutrality based only on offsetting, without changing its business model, there is a strong chance that it will never achieve carbon neutrality and that its communication will be misleading.
First, offsetting via technology, such as CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) techniques. Today, in October 2020, there is nothing applicable on a large scale and anyone who talks about it as a compensation in their business model does so in a hypothetical framework. Let me put it more simply: it’s playing Russian roulette with our future on innovations that have been decades in the making. This is also simply a typical excuse you will hear from manufacturers who do not want to change their business. These innovations will be indispensable if we hope to limit warming to +1.5 degrees, but it is criminal to expect only innovations to make our business evolve.
Carbon neutrality by planting trees…
Companies that have announced their carbon neutrality have systematically offset their emissions with tree plantations. Planting trees to offset one’s carbon footprint seems to be a good way for polluting companies to win back a public in search of “responsible” consumption. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that, as Valerie Masson-Delmotte reminded us on Twitter, tackling on Air France. How confident are you that the forest will actually offset your emissions over the long term? What happens when forests intended to compensate burn, as is the case in California? Do you think for a moment that this compensation process will also be reliable in France, where forests are already dying because of climate change, in general indifference? To learn more about this topic, I invite you to read our interview with Jonathan Guyot, Co-Founder of All4trees.
Let’s also be critical of ads that present a simple solution. The climate is not simple, nor is respect for biodiversity. So when you see an ad of this type, which of course has made the rounds of the French press:
“A scientific study assures that the climate can be regulated by a massive restoration of the world’s forests, or more precisely the planting of 1200 billion trees, absorbing two thirds of the gigatons of carbon emitted by humans.” It’s GREAT! It was sent to me several times and I was asked what I thought of it. Well, I’ll tell you: it’s crap.
Not only is this study fallacious, but it was quickly refuted in Science. In your opinion, how many articles in the press to explain this and take up the other study? Zero. Final impact of the operation = climate delay. We find excuses not to act: “It’s okay Jean-René, book 2 tickets to Bali, we will plant 2 trees at the boarding! Each announcement of this type should ring in your head with a red alarm. Systematically. Kind of like that little Dutch genius who figured out how to clean the oceans in 2017. RE-VO-LU-TION-NARY announced us BRUT. Last I heard, our savior started playing Fortnite, he wasn’t interested in saving the oceans anymore, no time.
Some examples of carbon neutrality, not so neutral as that
I will skip the Total and Air France cases, I have already come back to them several times and you can click on the links to learn more. More recently, we have had 3 quite interesting cases of ‘carbon neutrality’.
First of all, Velux announces a “Lifetime Carbon Neutral” for 2030. Very good, great news! Except that on closer inspection… This only concerns the company’s scopes 1 and 2. Too bad that scope 3 accounts for 94% of the company’s emissions …. CRAP ! what a shame. But who was responsible for defining this famous ‘carbon neutrality for life’? WWF ? Ah. what a shame².
2nd case of carbon neutrality, Nespresso! So it’s not 2050, nor 2030, but neutral in 2022! So I dug a little deeper into the subject, making a reply to them on Twitter. Considering the carbon and ecological footprint of coffee, do you think Nespresso will be effectively carbon neutral by the end of 2022? We can only hope so. But a little reminder all the same. Coffee would be the 6th most GHG emitting product per kilo produced… Audacious.
Finally, the last example and certainly the most difficult: the carbon neutrality of the consulting firm BCG (Boston Consulting Group). So they are not neutral, they are ‘climate positive’: “Beyond 2030, we will become climate positive by eliminating more carbon than we emit“. Again I had stuck my nose into their documentation, with phrases like “We will remove our remaining footprint with the most effective natural and technical solutions at an annual average of $80 per ton by 2030.” Now you must have the same reaction I had when I read this ad (if not, click on this link).
What concerns me the most are the current limits of the carbon accounting that consulting firms use to reach their carbon neutrality. Indeed, when they advise Total, Lafarge and co, the emissions are for their clients. But shouldn’t a portion of the emissions be attributed to the consulting firm, and not just to the client, who are major GHG emitters? Unfortunately, current carbon accounting does not take this into account. For now.
Risk associated with the criticism of Netzerowashing
“Rolala they do something good and you criticize!” “Criticism is easy, but art is hard.”
These are the kind of remarks I’ve already read in response to my articles or posts on social media. First of all, it’s not my job to point out the inconsistencies between the words and actions of companies. I take no pleasure in it. I do this because I think it’s important not to let those companies that, intentionally or not, perpetuate Business as Usual and bring us closer to the wall every day. Next, let me quote Bernard Charbonneau:
To progress on a road that will be foggy and arduous, the ecologist movement will have to practice the criticism of itself and its pseudo-allies: and for this work of intellectual and moral depollution, the materials will not lack.
If what we really want is to reduce our emissions by 60% by 2030, we should not think for a second that this will be done thanks to the simple will and beautiful announcements of companies, whose primary goal is to make profit. This trade-off between lower emissions and profit will not be without pain, without struggle, without cheats and liars on all sides.
Also, since even E. Macron says so, we need a systemic change. Very well. This means that we must challenge capitalism that harms the environment. However, too few people mention it directly in the mass media (fortunately, this is beginning to change!). As the economic literature has been pointing out for a decade now, it is time for us to change our economic software. So let’s pay attention to the communication of companies, greenwashing being only a second wind necessary to capitalism. This is very well described by Boltanski and Chiapello in The new spirit of capitalism :
To continue to develop, it needs to find principles of justification elsewhere than in itself that legitimize the strong commitment of the actors. It needs criticism like a bird needs air to fly, because it can only rely on what resists. So capitalism, which we have been told is in good health, will undoubtedly experience (or is experiencing?) a crisis, if it cannot rely on a critique that would allow it to amend itself while at the same time encouraging a renewed commitment by the actors to its expansion.
The last word
Carbon neutrality is a necessity, given the dramatic consequences that await us if we do not make efforts to achieve it. The enthusiasm for these efforts is real, as I see on a daily basis in my discussions with committed actors. This is very positive, it means that the climate is finally being taken into account and even if it has to go through actors who want to make money by surfing on the wave, as long as it goes in the right direction, we should be happy. Of course, this does not prevent us from keeping a critical mind on the various announcements of carbon neutrality. The first announcements were not exemplary, but perhaps this will serve as an example for future announcements.
The purpose of this article is to give some thoughts on a subject that should worry you (at least!) for the next 30 years: your future and that of our children are at stake. Ask yourself what you do on a daily basis to fight climate change. Ask yourself what more you can do in the next year, whether it’s in business or in your personal life. I remind you that the current objectives of the SNBC are very insufficient and that it is unthinkable to leave it as it is, without acting. If the numbers below don’t worry you, I have some bad news for you.