As communities around the country prepare for annual clean-ups and tree-plantings in celebration of a now 51-year old Earth Day, industries, too, are lining up to pledge their commitment to “go green.” But the savvy, often subtle deception of these market strategies to promote companies as engaging in environmentally-friendly practices that, in reality, continue to harm the environment has advocates urging the government to strengthen legal sanctions against “greenwashing” — a practice corporations use to strategically misrepresent their environmental practices.
One need not travel too far for the greenwashing experience. For me, in my home city of Worcester, Massachusetts, it’s present on the garbage and recycling trucks that drive down every street in town. Displaying images of pristine public parks and waterways, they seek to communicate the message that placing your trash on the curb somehow translates into beautiful ponds with ducks swimming in them surrounded by lush green spaces. The company’s logo tells you that their trash collection services “Give Resources New Life.” While this sort of branding is accepted as essential to doing business — the better the public feels about a company, the more likely they are to patronize it — public relations poses distinct threats to environmental movements.
In this case, uplifting words and images serve to mask the complexities of the political economy of waste and recycling and the pernicious realities of what happens to our waste and recycling when it’s driven away from the curb. Much of my city’s trash goes to a nearby incinerator that the EPA has rated as one of the nation’s biggest emitters of two disease-causing pollutants, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, an environmental justice problem activists have been taking on around the country. What doesn’t go to the incinerator heads to landfills as far away as Virginia or Ohio, adding more to already climbing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the outsourcing of waste to someone else’s backyard. Meanwhile, proposed changes to our recycling system have only increased the outrage, sparking a policy-change dispute among citizens, politicians and a PR-savvy industry.
A battle over local recycling
Two years ago, as part of its proposed “Clean City Program,” the city announced its intention to move all recycling from reusable bins to single-use plastic bags, arguing that this would reduce windborne litter. Such a change would not only worsen the problem of recycling goods contamination by food waste but increase our reliance on the fossil fuels used to produce plastic bags and add 135 tons of plastic to the waste stream each year. What’s more, it wouldn’t address the main source of loose street trash: the everyday litter of throwaway food containers and plastic bags, likely to increase as the city opens a new stadium and shopping district.
When a group of citizens mobilized to oppose this proposal — urging the city to keep reusable recycling bins and implement more effective waste-reduction strategies, such as a ban on throwaway containers — they discovered that the old chief of the Department of Public Works was now representing the company that wanted to sell the city a newly designed “bag-ripping” machine. He had convinced the city manager that the new system would lower recycling costs.
Following public response that showed the data analysis on bag-based recycling systems was funded by the industry making the bags — and that malfunctioning machines in other cities had added to labor time and costs — the bag-selling company hired a PR representative to meet with the environmental organizers. In this meeting, they explained that their single-use bags could be produced using carbon-capture technology, even claiming that more carbon would enter the atmosphere were it not for their bags, so environmentalists should support the new system. The activists were unimpressed, cognizant of the dubious claims on which this “technological fix” proposal is based.
In response to the public’s concerns, Worcester has delayed implementing the bag-based system for the time being. This fight, however, illustrates some of the PR industry’s many techniques for undercutting activism.
Public relations and its use against the environmental movement
The creation of the public relations industry is widely attributed to Edward Bernays, whose classic 1928 text, “Propaganda,” outlined his philosophy of collective psychological manipulation for political and other purposes. He soon applied this approach to advertising, and his slogans and imagery helped drive skyrocketing sales of everything from cigarettes to disposable cups. Eventually, an entire marketing industry would follow suit, working for pharmaceutical companies, the military, and every other sector of society.
The effects have not been benign. Public relations, to be clear, isn’t about truth-telling. It is not based on objective scientific research, hypothesis testing and application — nor is it intended to support equitable relationships between an organization and its supporting public. The objective of public relations is to maintain client allegiance through the presentation of compelling narratives, even if those narratives are misleading or untrue. The field has long been used to oppose activist movements, and insights from sociology can help us understand how.
Social movements develop what social scientists call “collective action frames,” or strategic ways of packaging their message to more easily identify the root and causes of social problems, as well as to promote critical solutions. In response, the actors that are targeted by activists — including policymakers, corporations, and other organizations such as industry groups — develop publicly marketable “counterframing” arguments. These may involve direct disagreement and the presentation of evidence to disprove opponents’ accusations, but oftentimes do not. With the help of PR consultants, targeted actors may instead coopt the movements’ demands, apparently conceding the rightness of these claims and working to incorporate them into a redefinition of who they are and what they do. It is important for organizers to note that this is not a full cooptation of activist goals and initiatives. Cooptation can have a positive outcome, if it means movement causes truly get taken up by powerful agents. However, this blurring of the lines of contention can also allow an organization to espouse movement values while avoiding making real changes that run counter to its own interests. This goes deeper than “rebranding,” which can be done simply to update a company’s image or expand its market base and may involve merely changing a logo. Counterframing is explicitly intended to demobilize protest. In extreme cases, as I have described in my research, it can entail complete institutional reinvention.
Meanwhile, “greenwashing,” a term coined in the 1980s, aims to divert attention away from the deleterious effects of a company’s businesses, slow the momentum of social movements and secure long-term consumer commitments. My city’s waste disposal trucks’ advertising, the plastic bag manufacturer’s corporate-sponsored research and the bag vendor’s PR rep’s argumentative counterframing are all examples. And activists sometimes unwittingly contribute to this process when their targets invite them to engage in a dialogue that elicits a heartfelt articulation of their grievances — an opportunity for the PR experts to learn exactly what sentiments and claims would most sway the public on the issue.
Public relations experts also help targeted companies devise ersatz alliances, a strategy dubbed “astroturfing,” alluding to a knock-off version of grassroots organizing. Witness, for example, the “Women for Natural Gas” group, populated by reportedly fake women. PR experts guide the cultivation of political ties with real, often less powerful groups, as seen in natural gas companies’ investment in lobbying with labor to oppose policies aimed at transitioning away from fossil fuels. And they help to root targeted actors more deeply into the communities affected by their activities. Formosa Plastics, known for its devastating pollution of waterways and air in communities of color in the United States, has made token donations to local environmental civic groups and funded academic positions at local universities.
Adjacent to the field of PR, lobbying has its own set of powerful strategies. Shortly after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent veto of an ambitious climate bill, researchers at Brown University released a report illuminating how, despite overwhelming testimony in legislative committees in favor of climate action, industry coalitions have succeeded in steering energy policy.
PR efforts to take command of the discourse around environmental issues — particularly climate change — are relentless. What then is a social movement to do?
Countering deceptive PR
More and more, movements are aware of these public relations approaches and are challenging them. Watchdog organizations like Global Witness have been exceptionally astute in fact-checking government and industry claims, countering falsehoods with concrete data, and calling on leaders to follow through on their commitments. In Worcester, Sunrise Movement conducted a thorough review of the city’s recently unveiled “Green Plan,” revealing serious omissions and troubling contradictions between what the plan represents and what it fails to promise to deliver.
There are several important considerations organizers can take to head off PR moves before they derail movement momentum.
1. Strategize in advance of public relations approaches and actively plan for them. There is extraordinary archived footage of civil rights activists training ahead for the violence they might face during sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Climate activists should also think several steps ahead and devise strategies for dealing with — and publicly exposing — their targets’ PR maneuvers.
2. Be more discriminating in identifying which politicians, leaders, and allies are sincerely concerned about climate change and which are not. Here, again, Sunrise Movement has demonstrated skillful strategic forethought in Massachusetts, claiming a significant victory for the climate movement in the recent Senate race between longtime movement supporter Ed Markey and his Democratic Senate primary rival Joseph Kennedy III.
Different strategies tap into different mechanisms for change — therefore, activists should weigh carefully whether the goal should be to convert targets, persuade them (that concession is in their best interests) or ultimately coerce them. While there are many examples of the transformative power of change-of-heart dialogues inspiring empathic thinking and action toward more egalitarian and reciprocal relationships, these kinds of efforts will fall short with politicians and industry leaders committed only to environmental discourse. Some corporate executives are even arguing that a voluntary approach will ultimately fail.
3. Make action-oriented demands that go beyond opposing dangerous policies and practices and instead propose clear policy changes, articulated in detail. Opposition may garner widespread agreement on what is wrong, but proposals with clear asks will be more PR-resistant. What’s more, leaving articulation and implementation up to leaders who lack climate knowledge and practical experience can make their “green plans” less effective and more vulnerable to manipulation.
Meanwhile, denouncements only go so far. On the one hand, efforts to expose the natural gas industry’s leading role in climate change have sparked divestment at every level, the most recent example being the federal End Polluter Welfare Act of 2021. On the other hand, denouncements — particularly those aimed at local legislation — are not as effective as developing new policies that specify electrification, bans on new fossil-fuel hookups or the implementation of retrofits to transition off of existing fossil-fuel sources. Enacting policies for reducing energy usage overall is also necessary, especially as energy experts provide sobering assessments of the limits of alternative energy given our current usage, as well as the harmful effects of “green” technology.
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Even as the climate crisis escalates, many of the offending industries continue to pour funds into efforts that stave off the rapid changes necessary to avert crises. For some activists, it may feel paradoxical when attacks on their movement come packaged in the form of strategic agreement. But all evidence in the social scientific study of environmental politics shows us that greenwashing is now among the most common weapons in the quest for environmental impunity, at least in places where activists hold enough power to avoid the direct repression frontline and indigenous resisters often face.
With this realization at hand, it is vital that organizers continue to develop forms of resistance that take the duplicity of the public relations enterprise into account. This is necessary in order to have honest public conversations about the dire ecological problems we face, as well as to construct — and achieve the implementation of — policies that are truly effective in addressing them.