James Halliwell
Feb 22, 2022

PR under fire for 'greenwashing'

A new report has slammed ‘Big Oil’ for being all talk and not enough action, and concludes that “accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded”.

Credit: Cristian Storto Fotografia/Getty Images
Credit: Cristian Storto Fotografia/Getty Images

A peer-reviewed paper has suggested greenwashing remains rampant among big oil companies, with a “strong increase” in using eco-friendly words but “insignificant” spending on transitioning to clean energy.

It said although the oil companies were talking a good game, the “magnitude of investments and actions” directed to moving to clean energy business models “does not match [the] discourse”.

The report, ‘The clean energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A mismatch between discourse, actions and investments’, stops short of naming specific PR agencies or comms teams, but it suggests both are facilitating greenwashing via campaigns and comms for businesses including BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil.

It said in respect of both “pledges and actions, the American majors trail their European counterparts significantly. Their laggard status is largely visible with regard to actions, particularly for ExxonMobil.”

“We found a strong increase in discourse related to climate, low-carbon and transition, especially by BP and Shell. Similarly, we observed increasing tendencies toward strategies related to decarbonisation and clean energy. But these are dominated by pledges rather than concrete actions.

“We thus conclude that the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse. Until actions and investment behaviour are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.”

Reacting to the report, a spokesperson for Edelman, whose clients include Shell and ExxonMobil, told PRWeek the “environment and climate are everyone’s issue, including ours. Addressing it will require unprecedented collaboration across sectors, geographies, and generations.

“While there are many different views on the path forward, we want to be ‘in the room’ with our current and future clients on this important topic helping to accelerate the transition.”

Edelman completed a 60-day review of its roster of climate-sensitive clients in January.

Announcing the review the previous November, the agency’s chief executive, Richard Edelman, said in a blog post he had been “reflecting deeply” on the effects of climate change and had created Edelman Impact, which he described as a “new global practice intended to harness expertise across our existing ESG, Purpose and Sustainability offerings”.

He also appointed Robert Casamento as Edelman’s global head of Climate.

Following the review, the agency concluded it “may have to part ways [with clients] in a few instances. We cannot comment further on relationships with individual clients or client assignments, for confidentiality reasons.”

WPP, which counts BP and Chevron among its agencies’ clients, did not comment on the report.  

But Stuart Lambert, co-founder and chief strategy officer at ESGP advisory firm Blurred, said it was a “complex issue through which there are few simple pathways. No PR firm should be working for a company that denies or misinforms when it comes to climate change.

“Frankly, if you have a moment of doubt, that’s a red flag. And making net zero pledges without a plan for how to deliver them counts, for me, as a red flag.

That principle is already reflected to some extent in the code of ethics of the IPRA and the CIPR, yet a majority of their members continue to take work with seeming impunity. We need an industry code of ethics for climate change that has actual teeth.”

Jenny Briggs, associate director at Greenhouse Communications, which works with Fairtrade, said it was “frustrating to see this latest study confirm what we’ve all known for a long time, that major oil companies are consistently engaging in greenwashing while they perpetuate practices that exacerbate climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“We hope that this will be the final wake-up call to those in our industry who continue to enable these companies to do so much damage.

“We do not, and will not, work for fossil fuel companies or major polluters. Instead, our focus is on partnering with businesses and organisations making a positive difference and driving change towards a low-carbon economy.”

As for the speed of action to address climate issues, Andrew Cameron-Smith, director of Social Net Zero, a specialist comms division at Social Group, said: “We should not forget this is a transition.

“Solutions will not happen overnight, and this transition will also be as much about winning hearts and minds to adapt behaviour as it will technological change.

“Communications need to be open and honest to win trust, because of the scale of change required to reach a state of net zero emissions.”

Sam Narr, founder and CEO of Kibbo Kift, which counts Clean Creatives among its clients, said the report shows “clear evidence that no level of well-intentioned consultancy can aid an honest transition to clean energy for fossil fuel polluters. It's now black or white. You're on the wrong side of history or not.

“Receiving contracts from BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil should induce nausea; however, the industry's leading agencies are lapping it up, and no one is holding them to account for the impact of their work. Now is the time for the industry to act with integrity and place principles over pounds by refusing work.”

PR firms need to “acknowledge this as a moment of reckoning and commit to no longer facilitating, or at worst, producing, greenwashing,” added Sarah Woodhouse, director at Ambitious PR.

“Rather than denying the existence of this issue, we must demand the complete facts and advise accordingly, and be prepared to walk away if clients are not prepared to match discourse with actions.

“The eyes are on our industry and now is the time to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”


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