‘Rampant’ greenwashing by major companies on social media: Harvard report

NEW YORK – A commercial plane photoshopped with the tail of a shark, hashtags that misleadingly evoke sustainability, tokenistic use of minorities to distract and to signal virtue: a Harvard report published on Tuesday highlights rampant greenwashing by leading companies on social media.

The investigation, commissioned by Greenpeace Netherlands, involved analysing the text and images of 2,300 posts by 22 of Europe’s largest carmakers, fossil fuel producers and airlines this June and July.

“During this summer of record temperatures and wildfires in Europe, these fossil fuel interests have remained explicitly silent on the topic of climate change, and instead, they engage in what we interpret to be strategic brand positioning,” lead author Geoffrey Supran told AFP.

Entitled “Three Shades of Green(washing),” the report released during New York’s Climate Week found that only one in five “green” car ads actually present a product for sale, while the rest simply promote the brand as green.

One in five posts by oil, car and airline companies centre on sports, fashion or social causes that direct attention away from their core businesses.

Two-thirds of companies’ social media posts painted a “green innovation” sheen on their operations, the report found, with automakers generating by far the most compared with airlines and oil and gas firms.

While there was already some awareness around these trends, Mr Supran said the strength of the new study was its use of peer-reviewed social science methods to lend more quantitative weight.

A key feature of the companies’ posts was how often they were about their sponsorship of sports events or charity, as opposed to talking about what they sell.

“In principle those kinds of activities should be applauded. The issue becomes when corporate philanthropy slips into corporate social responsibility washing, things like greenwashing, sportswashing, and wokewashing,” Mr Supran said.

Examples of greenwashing include an Instagram post by Lufthansa where a plane blends into the body of a shark swimming in the ocean.

The post was to highlight a coating modeled off shark skin that is applied to the plane’s body to improve airflow and reduce fuel consumption.