The “Green” Hypocrisy: America’s Corporate Environment Champions Pollute The World
“Greenwashing” is the act of misleading the public regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product, service, or business line. Due to the public’s increased awareness of environmental issues, including global warming, deforestation, and the loss of endangered species, greenwashing has become a staple of corporations marketing efforts. All of the companies in this article have made some effort to address these concerns. Some of them appear to be trying harder than others, and even a few of them have made legitimate efforts to become responsible corporate stewards of the environment. Evidenced by the support of environmental groups and corporate responsibility professionals, many of these companies’ green initiatives have made a positive impact.
A majority of America’s largest companies have become part of the “green” movement. Some have fleets of hybrid trucks. Others install solar panels on their large buildings to consume energy more cost effectively with less of an impact on the environment. Many give generously to environmental non-profit organizations.
The irony of the “green” movement of US companies is that many of the firms that spend the most money and public relations effort trying to show the government, the public, and their shareholders that they are trying to improve the environment are also among the most prolific polluters in the country. Pollution does not mean that the companies are doing anything illegal. Instead, it simply refers to natural consequence of the companies’ industrial efforts which result in contamination to the air, soil or water by the discharge of substances that are toxic to the environment.
24/7 Wall St. has put together a list of the Top Ten Greenwashers in America. There may be some large companies that are greater polluters than these firms. There may be other corporations that do more to promote their pro-environment credentials. But those can be counted on two hands.
Every company on this list makes a substantial investment in creating a perception that they are friendlier to the environment than their peers are or that they are on the side of good or that saving the global ecosystem should be part of a corporation’s broad public responsibility–its good citizenship. These firms often spend millions of dollars on advertising to support the way that their companies are perceived in the green world. But, hidden behind these efforts, each corporation on this list is a Herculean polluter. And, that fact points to a hypocrisy which is almost completely hidden from the public.
In the process of creating this list, 24/7 Wall St. examined hundreds of state and federal documents and interviewed experts in environmental law, and officials who review data for non-profit organizations which have charters to track environmental violations. We also reviewed annual reports from companies on their environment efforts. It was important to balance all of these. Some sources had axes to grind, but that was weighed in the process.
A more complete description of our methodology runs at the end of the article.
1) General Electric (GE)
In May 2005 GE announced its $90 million “Ecomagination” advertising campaign. According to Jeff Immelt, the company’s CEO, “Ecomagination is GE’s commitment to address challenges such as the need for cleaner, more efficient sources of energy, reduced emissions and abundant sources of clean water.” The company said that revenue from 70 Ecomagination products and services would be $17 billion in 2008. Since its inception, Ecomagination has provided GE with countless opportunities to reflect its corporate concern over the environment. Arguably the whole effort is greenwashing.
On Super Bowl Sunday GE debuted its ad campaign for Smart Grid Technologies. The premise behind this technology is that IT systems and products can make power grids more efficient. The ad explains that “Smart grid technology from GE will make the way we distribute electricity more efficient simply by making it more intelligent.” This will benefit the environment. The more efficient our energy grid, the less power we use. The less power used, the less carbon dioxide is emitted. That GE used Super Bowl Sunday to launch this initiative is important, not only because of the huge sums spent for the advertising time, but also because it marked the first time that GE has bought time during the Super Bowl.
GE also launched a website to further create buzz around its efforts. The online videos and interactive features include significant coverage about how the technology can be employed to better use alternative energy by improving the ability of the grid to deliver locally generated wind, sun and biogas power across the country. The technology will also facilitate the purchase of energy generated by the consumer from systems like wind turbines and solar panels. The cumulative effect of promoting the benefits that the technology will have on alternative energy is that it appears to equate the two.
The reality is that smart grid technology in one form is already required by 42 states. Although alternative energy may benefit from this new service, there are myriad ways that it will improve consumer spending and carbon emissions without adopting better alternative energy efforts. Ecomagination’s stated goal is to “meet customer demand for more energy-efficient products” by investing in “innovative solutions to environmental challenges.” The character of this statement is fair, but it belies the company’s larger corporate identity and its history as one of the country’s worst polluters.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), for the electrical equipment industry, GE was the fifth largest producer of chemicals with four facilities in the top 100 generating 332,336 pounds in waste in 2007. In the miscellaneous manufacturing industry, GE’s GE Osmonics facility was the fourth highest producing facility of TRI production-related waste with 1,919,437 pounds. According to the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), General Electric is the sixth most toxic company when considering the amount of population exposed to its pollution and its toxicity level from its plants (last week 24/7 Wall St. incorrectly reported that GE was the most toxic company according to PERI).
According to the EPA, “From approximately 1947 to 1977, the General Electric Company (GE) discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from its capacitor manufacturing plants” at two facilities on the Hudson River. The EPA says that “The primary health risk associated with the site is the accumulation of PCBs in the human body through eating contaminated fish.” The EPA has found that the cancer risk from eating fish from the Upper Hudson exceeds the EPA standard by 700 times.
On December 4, 2001, the EPA issued a “record of decision” calling for the dredging of 2.65 million cubic yards from the upper section of the Hudson River to remove approximately 150 thousand pounds of PCBs. According to the company’s website, “From 1990 to 2007 GE has spent over $1 billion in addressing PCB-related issues, with the majority of those expenses (82%) coming from just three sites” including the Hudson River. However, Riverkeeper and other non-for-profit organizations focused on the environment contend that GE has stymied the government’s efforts to clean up the river and enforce the dredging requirement. In 2008, Alex Matthiessen, president of Riverkeeper, stated that CEO, Jeffery Immelt “continues to be, as is GE, very defensive about the Hudson River cleanup.”
Each year the League of Conservation Voters publishes the “Dirty Dozen,” a program targeting candidates for Congress “who consistently vote against clean energy and conservation.” Out of this list, GE’s PAC has donated thousands of dollars to six of the dirty dozen. Additionally, GE’s PAC donated to two leading deniers of global warming, Senator Jim Inhofe, included in the Dirty Dozen list, and Congressman Joe Barton.
2) American Electric Power (AEP)
According to the company, American Electric Power’s 2008 Sustainability Report is a “comprehensive report offering a frank discussion” about their environmental performance and their strategies for sustainability. Michael G. Morris, the chairman, president, and CEO, says that sustainability is “Transparency and accountability, along with a close working relationship with our stakeholders, will grow our business, serve our shareholders’ interest and create a better world for our children and grandchildren.”
In an effort to be more energy efficient, the company adopted principals set forth by the Clinton Global Initiative, committing approximately $100 million over the next five years to build or update its facilities using the LEED green building rating system. In 2008, construction was completed on a new facility for which the company is seeking LEED certification and which it claims “will use 15 percent less energy and 20 percent less water than comparable non-LEED building.” Through another initiative the company will conform to the International Management System Standard ISO 14001, which outlines the requirements for organizations to operate in an environmentally sustainable manner. The company further argues that is has “completed more than two-thirds of our $5.4 billion investment program to reduce airborne emissions from our coal-fired power plants,” in order to comply with the federal environmental regulations.
Although these investments are laudable, it appears that they were not entirely motivated by the company’s desire to be a good steward of the environment. As the report sets forth, “AEP’s court-approved settlement of the New Source Review (NSR) litigation provides us with additional opportunities to reduce our power plant emissions.” The complaint by the U.S. EPA and others alleged that AEP had made major modifications at some of its coal-fueled generating units without obtaining the necessary permits and without installing controls required by the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (“SO2”), nitrogen oxide (“NOx”) and particulate matter. Despite the company’s eagerness to be a leader in environmental conservation, “AEP did not admit to wrongdoing by agreeing to this settlement.”
According to Frank O’Donnell, President of Clean Air Watch, an environmental policy group and whistleblower, “AEP is one of nation’s biggest polluters, now that GM is making fewer cars, and is one the key lobbyist against political interest on global warming.” O’Donnell also says that the company “aggressively seeks to block legislation unless it receives a huge financial wind fall in the deal.” The company’s corporate PAC donated to five members of the Dirty Dozen as well as Congressman Barton.
On October 9, 2007, the Department of Justice, eight states, and 13 citizen groups announced a settlement agreement with AEP under the Clean Air Act, obtaining caps on emissions of pollutants from 16 plants in five states. According to the EPA, it is the single largest environmental enforcement settlement by several measures. The EPA estimates that the company will spend more that $4.6 billion to achieve the emission caps. The settlement also will have one of the greatest individual impacts on pollution, reducing it by 813,000 tons per year. According to assistant administrator for EPA’s enforcement and compliance assurance program, Granta Nakayma, “Today’s settlement will save $32 billion in health costs per year for Americans. Less air pollution from power plants means fewer cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”
3) ExxonMobil (XOM)
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the country’s largest oil spill. As a result of the disaster, the ship spilled approximately 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound, Alaska. Since that time, ExxonMobil has spent millions of dollars in an attempt to regain the public’s trust. In an effort to continue to improve the way the company is perceived, it has begun to aggressively market its green initiatives.
ExxonMobil’s Corporate Citizen’s Report, published May 21, 2008, states that the company “is working on technologies with the potential for near-term impact on greenhouse gas emissions” including: investing $100 million improving natural gas technology, working with car makers to increase fuel economy by 30 percent, improving lithium-ion battery technology in order to enable lower-emission hybrid vehicles, and developing a hydrogen system that could improve driving efficiency by 80 percent.
In a commercial broadcast in 2008, the company sought to promote this perception further. The ad features a series of ExxonMobil employees who share their thoughts on the need for greater energy efficiency and alternative fuels. An engineer states that “With the increased demand for energy in the world there is a growing concern about the risk of climate change.” Another engineer suggests “One of the best things we can do is be efficient with our energy. The less energy we use the less impact there is on the environment.” Finally, a research engineer says that efficient fuels, engines, and batteries for hybrid cars will be important because “energy has to be used in the most efficient way to meet the needs of our lives but also to minimize the impact on the environment.”
For some time, policy and research groups have worked to discredit the reality of global warming. According to the U.K.’s Royals Society, a highly regarded scientific academy, these groups “misrepresent the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence.” In 2007, The Guardian reported that academics were offered $10,000 each “by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.” Research performed by ExxonMobil watchdog, ExxposeExxon, suggests that “Since at least 1998, ExxonMobil has spent $17 to $23 million to bankroll these groups.”
According to the company’s 2008 Corporate Citizen’s Report, ExxonMobil has finally admitted that its funding efforts to research groups that deny global warming has an adverse effect on the environment. “In 2008 we will discontinue contributions to several public policy interest groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.”
On December 17, 2008, ExxonMobil settled an action with the EPA arising from Clean Air Act violations. As a result of the company’s failure to monitor sulfur content in some fuel gas streams between 2005 and 2007, EPA tests found sulfur levels in excess of regulatory limits. This was a violation of a 2005 agreement. The total fine for the two EPA actions was more than $20 million.
4) DuPont (DU)
In 2008 Dupont launched a marketing campaign called “Open Science.” According to the company’s website, “DuPont Open Science uses the power of collaboration to do extraordinary things. Explore how DuPont and its partners are helping the United States cultivates, taps new energies, and makes industries safer and eco-friendly.” The site goes on to encourage the reader to “Explore how DuPont and its partners are tackling the issues of our age: food shortages, dwindling petroleum, and global warming.”
Along with this initiative, the company debuted a TV advertisement. The TV spot features a series of miniature cityscapes depicting scenes where conditions are improved by Open Science. Among the changes that Open Science achieves are rebuilding cities “making them safer and more sustainable”; “it can bring solar power to remote villages”; “it makes materials lighter which saves fuel”; and“it can feed a growing planet.” DuPont’s website provides perfect illustrations for each of these initiatives. In one such example, DuPont explains its efforts to help Greensburg, Kansas recover from one of America’s worst tornados. According to the piece, the company helped “rebuild Greensburg as a model sustainable community” by a financial gift and “eco-friendly” products.
DuPont’s efforts and partnerships are, in many cases, charitable works that have a positive impact on the environment. The ad and the campaign in general have an aggregate affect on all of DuPont’s detailed “eco-friendly” projects leaving the impression that DuPont is a good steward of the environment and believes in open science. Open Science, before DuPont co-opted the name, refers to the concept in science of providing accurate accounts of methodology that results in a transparent research process that encourages collaboration. In reality, DuPont’s partners are in large part its customers. And, as has been the case for DuPont for some time, its business practices are far from transparent and fall short of being friendly to the environment.
On December 12, 2005 the EPA reached a $16.5 million settlement with the DuPont arising from violations alleged by the agency that the company failed to report the possible health risks associated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical compound used to make Teflon. The settlement included $10.25 million civil administrative penalty and $6.26 million for Supplemental Environmental Projects. According to the EPA, “A SEP is an environmentally beneficial project that the violator agrees to undertake in exchange for mitigation of the penalty to be paid.” At that time, the penalty was the largest in the agency’s history.
The violations alleged by the EPA included “multiple failures to report information to EPA about substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment that DuPont obtained about PFOA from as early as 1981 and as recently as 2004.” The violations fell into three categories: human health information, environmental contamination, and animal toxicity studies. The enforcement action arose from DuPont’s failure to disclose information that the company had obtained regarding the level of PFOA in 12 individuals who had been exposed to drinking water which contained the chemical.
According to DuPont’s Progress Report on PFOA Phase Out, in February 2007, former DuPont Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Charles O. Holliday went beyond the stated goal of the EPA program when he publicly announced the company’s commitment “to eliminate the need to make, buy or use PFOA by 2015.” However, despite the fact that it has complied with the terms of the phase out, the company continues to deny PFOA’s harmful effects. Although the EPA has not made any definitive conclusions regarding potential risks, including cancer, at this time, additional research is still being conducted to determine the cancer-causing risks of PFOA. However, in 2005, the Science Advisory Board performed a formal peer review of the chemical that, while not conclusive, stated the PFOA cancer data was consistent with EPA Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment Descriptor and “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
On January 8, the Environmental Appeals Board granted EPA and DuPont’s joint motion seeking a three-year extension on its testing of PFOA. Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group, Richard Wiles, said the data from DuPont tests is critical to determining whether consumer Teflon products are a major source of PFOA in the environment. “As long as they can delay development of this data, that basically means that they don’t have to comply with the phase-out agreement,” Wiles said.
5) Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)
Biofuel, ethanol and biodiesel, have quickly become the darlings of the green economy. They are heralded as renewable energy sources that some say can either reduce or entirely replace reliance on petroleum to fuel internal combustion engines. According to the company’s site, “a world in need of clean, renewable fuels to meet growing energy demand and achieve greater energy security is turning to agriculture for answers.” As one of the largest diversified agribusinesses in the world, the company maintains that it has the necessary scale and expertise to be a leader in the production of biofuels. Its mission is “to unlock the potential of nature to improve the quality of life.”
The company points out that biofuels have measurable benefits to the environment including a reduction in greenhouse emissions, by limiting cardon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter associated with petroleum-based diesel, while also serving as a renewable energy source. Produced from corn and sugar cane, ethanol is blended with gasoline to produce a fuel that can improve engine performance and reduce pollution. Produced from vegetable oil and alcohol, biodiesel is blended with gasoline, reducing greenhouse emissions from diesel engines.
The truth is that both ethanol and biodiesel emit less global warming pollution than burning petroleum-based gasoline. Unfortunately, producing biofuels creates enormous amounts of global warming pollution, so much so that many argue that they offset the benefits gained when the fuel is used to power engines. This is the sin of the hidden trade-off. In this case, a company promotes the green attribute of a product without consideration for other environmental factors. ADM publicly touts biofuels’ green benefits, while failing to mention that the energy necessary to grow the corn requires significant amounts of fossil fuels, offsetting the environmental benefits. According to the journal Science, “corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%.”
In 2006, Wilmar Holdings, the largest producer of palm oil, announced the proposed acquisition of “five plantation companies which have interests in land in Kalimantan province, Indonesia” in order to increase capacity for palm oil production. The planting of palm-oil producing plants requires land which is cleared of trees. The acquisition document proves that ADM Asia Pacific Limited, a subsidiary of ADM, acquired 30% interest in the companies. According to Greenpeace, the enormous growth of the palm oil industry is due in part to increase demand for biofuels. Although the problem is occurring across Southeast Asia, “the problem is particularly acute in Indonesia which has been named in the 2008 Guinness Book of Records as the country with fastest rate of deforestation. It is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely due to deforestation,” environmental group said.
Since receiving increased attention from a number of environmental and political organizations, ADM has sought to distance itself from palm oil plantation efforts in Indonesia. Following a series of public attacks ADM stated that it “affirmed our Company’s commitment to responsible palm oil through our membership in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil,” an organization that encourages sustainable palm oil production. On February 24, Wilmar International Limited entered into two separate acquisition agreements with Archer Daniels Midland Europe BV and Archer Daniels Midland Singapore Pte Ltd for the acquisition of all its interests in two jointly-held companies, Wilmar-ADM Investments Holding Pte Ltd & PT Karya Putrakreasi Nusantara.
6) Waste Management, Inc. (WMI)
In 2006, Waste Management introduced a new television advertising campaign focusing on environmental messages. According to WM senior vice president of sales and marketing David Aardsma, “the goal of the Waste Management ad campaign is to link everyday collection to environmental protection in the minds of consumers.” The campaign, titled “think green” was intended to inform the public that the company was the largest recycler in North America and that their landfill gas-to-energy project produced renewable energy,
The television spot featured cinematic shots of lush forests and woodland creatures interspersed with the company’s truck driving on a road past the trees. A narrator is heard saying “This lush expanse of green does more than beautify our world. Trees help clean the air of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. As North America’s largest recycler, last year alone, Waste Management recycled enough paper to save over one million trees. From everyday collection to environmental protection, think green, think waste management.”
In 2008, WM launched greenopolis, a social networking site that encourages users, including individuals, organizations, schools and businesses, to learn about the environment and earn rewards by making a positive impact. About the launch, Joe Vaillancourt, managing director of Waste Management said, “Waste Management is an environmental company that is committed to not only providing its comprehensive waste and environmental services, but also engaging customers and all of its various stakeholders to think about the environment. We believe that by promoting and creating a dialogue about things such as conservation, recycling and renewable energy, that awareness about our environmental operations and our business offerings will increase.” Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington thinks it has a more subversive purpose: “Greenopolis, I suspect, is designed to show that Waste Management cares about the environment more than anything else. So in a way, it’s like an advertisement.” EarthFirst.com and others seem to take similarly skeptical position.
According to Elizabeth Royte, a journalist for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s onearth, since 2005, Waste Management has spent more than $90 million on TV commercials and print advertisements emphasizing the number of trees it saves through recycling, the amount of land it has set aside for wildlife habitats, and how much energy it generates through incineration. However, what the ads fail to disclose is that burning trash doesn’t come without a price. Although the technology continues to improve, incinerators still discharge small levels of mercury, lead, and dioxin into the atmosphere. Royte also writes, “They also generate more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy generated than do power plants, and their ash is toxic.” An additional consequence of incineration is that it discourages using landfills. Because power plants that use incinerators require a consistent flow of garbage, they are necessarily antagonistic to principles such as recycling, composting and reducing waste.
Waste Management’s corporate PAC has donated to two members of the dirty dozen, Mitch McConnel and Sam Graves. The company also made a donation to Congressman Barton.
7) International Paper (IP)
In the early 1990s, following a series of reports issued by the United Nations on sustainable development and rainforest conservation, the forest products industry began to receive increased attention over its land-use strategies regarding logging. Specifically, these companies, including International Paper, received negative publicity regarding their use of chemicals, clear-cutting, and inadequate conservation protection. Informed by increased awareness of sustainable practices, third-party certification has become a critical tool for promoting ecologically responsible forestry practices.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit founded in 1993 by environmental groups, the forestry profession, and community groups. Its stated purpose “is to improve forest management worldwide” by providing “a model for environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest stewardship.”
In 1994, International Paper, in collaboration with the American Forest & Paper Association (AFPA) – the national trade association for the forest, pulp, paper, paperboard, and wood products industry – founded the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). According to AFPA website, the association’s members “agreed to adhere to a set of forestry principles that would meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
According to an independent study commissioned by both FSC and SFI, although SFI was initially developed as an industry led self-improvement program, “it has evolved into a program that promotes third-party certification of forestry practices of member companies and licensees.” However, contrary to this assessment, environmental groups, including The Sierra Club, The Nation Environmental Defense Fund and the Rainforest Action Network have published reports critical of what they characterize as weak standards for certification. According to these groups, because SFI standards were developed by the same industry that requires certification, SFI certification provides a measurement for sustainability that is weak on oversight and contrary to its stated purpose.
The US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is a rating tool of the nonprofit for green building design and construction that seeks to provide measurable results for building owners and occupants. The LEED green building certification program for new construction requirements are intended to “encourage environmentally responsible forest management.” The most recent version of LEED, with a scheduled launch of April 27, requires that new construction seeking the LEED designation must “Use a minimum of 50% (based on cost) of wood-based materials and products that are certified in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Council’s principles and criteria, for wood building components.”
FSC is not without its critics. It may be that some groups find both acceptable. However, despite this criticism, 24/7 Wall St is unaware of any environmental groups that have suggested that SFI is better than FSC.
According to International Paper’s 2008 “Sustainability Update,” FSC certification in the U.S. reflects a fraction of the certification used by the company’s businesses. Of the company’s 16 domestic paper mills only one uses FSC certification. Similarly, domestic container plants and wood procurement systems both use SFI certification in lieu of FSC.
According to TRI, for the paper industry, International Paper was the largest producer of chemicals with fifteen facilities in the top 100 generating 42,554,027 pounds in waste. The company also had the second highest producing facility of TRI production-related waste with 43,320,612 pounds. According to PERI, International Paper is the thirty-first most toxic company with a toxic score of 49,385.
In 2008, the Rainforest Action Network condemned a proposal by International Paper to build a pulp mill and establish 1.2 million acres of plantation forest in Indonesia’s rainforest. This came as a surprise to RAN because the company had established an internal policy that it would not expand into Indonesia because it is a global warming and biodiversity hot spot.
Following the release, Thomas E. Gestrich, president of International Paper Asia, explained the company’s plans in Indonesia. Mr.Gestrich said that he would prefer land that had already been cleared, but failed to explain how the company would secure hundreds of thousands of meters of forest without disturbing the natural habitat, waters or indigenous peoples.
Out of the LCV’s Dirty Dozen, International Paper’s PAC has donated thousands of dollars to 5 of the Dirty Dozen, including the leading denier of global warming, Senator Jim Inhofe.
8) BP (BP)
In 1998, British Petroleum and Amoco announced a merger into a single company called BP Amoco. In 2000, according to the company’s website, BP, now a group of companies that included Amoco and others “unveiled a new global brand with a distinctive new mark, a sunburst of green, yellow and white.” According to Sourcewatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, “in late July 2000 BP launched a massive $200 million public relations and advertising campaign, introducing the company with a new slogan – ‘Beyond Petroleum.’” According to an EPA press release, on July 25th, 2000 the company entered into a settlement with the EPA and agreed to spend more than “$500 million on up-to-date pollution-control technologies and work practices at nine refineries to reduce emissions from all sources – from stacks, leaking valves, wastewater vents and flares.”
In December of 2000, CorpWatch, a non-profit focused on corporate violations of environmental fraud, gave BP a “greenwash” award. CorpWatch gives out the awards “to corporations that put more money, time and energy into slick PR campaigns aimed at promoting their eco-friendly images, than they do to actually protecting the environment.” In a 2001 speech to shareholders, BP’s Chief Executive John Browne said “When we launched the brand we used the phrase beyond petroleum. Some people thought that meant we were giving up oil and gas. I’m sorry to disappoint our competitors. Beyond Petroleum means that what we’re giving up is the old mind set – the old thinking which assumed that oil companies had to be dirty and secretive and arrogant. I don’t believe we should be any of these things.”
“Beyond petroleum” is still the company’s motto today. A commercial that played in 2008 suggested that alternative energies were important to BP. Composed of a series of brief statements that appear to be the opinions of the average American, the comments state what BP’s energy policy should be with respect to alternative fuels. “First we insure that we find all the oil that is avail to us in North American. Natural gas is probably the cleanest and the most accessible fuel we have. I’d love seeing more wind power. I think it would be in their best interest to continue to pursue things like solar energy. I think biofuel is a very viable alternative. Any business person that’s worth their salt is going to diversity as much as they can.” The commercial closes by showing a series of icons depicting oil, natural gas, wind, solar, and biofuels, followed by the ad’s s tagline: “investing in America’s most diverse energy portfolio: bp. beyond petroleum.”
O’Donnell has a poor opinion of the company’s green initiatives saying “several years ago, BP, which probably spent as much as any company in the world to promote their green brand, was, at the same time, actively lobbying against efforts to limit global warming legislation – beyond petroleum and into the backrooms.” In 2008, the company’s corporate PAC contributed to half of the Dirty Dozen and to Congressman Joe Barton.
According to environmental watchdogs, things have not changed a great deal since 2000. A 2009 study published by Greenpeace reported that BP “allocated 93 percent ($20 billion) of its total investment fund for the development and extraction of oil, gas and other fossil fuels. In contrast, solar power was allocated just 1.39 percent, and wind a paltry 2.79 percent.” Along with its aggregate investment in alternative energy – including wave, tidal, and biofuels – this amount is only 6.8 percent of BP’s total investment. Greenpeace claims that this information is from internal company documents which it obtained.
As recently as last month, BP entered into a settlement with the EPA stemming from charges related to violations of The Clean Air Act. According to Catherine R. McCabe, the acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, “BP failed to fulfill its obligations under the law, putting air quality and public health at risk.” She added, “Today’s settlement will improve air quality for the people living in and around Texas City, many of whom come from minority and low income backgrounds.” BP has agreed to invest at least $161 million on “pollution control, enhanced maintenance, and monitoring.” Furthermore, the company must spend a total of $18 million, $12 million in civil penalties, and $6 million for supplemental environmental projects in the community.
9) Dow Chemical (DOW)
In 2006, The Dow Chemical Company announced its new advertising campaign. Dubbed “The Human Element”, the accompanying press release stated that the campaign sought to reintroduce the company the company, announcing “its vision of addressing some of the most pressing economic, social and environmental concerns facing the global community in the coming decade.” Dow vice president of global communications and reputation, Patti Temple Rocks, explained that the initiative is more than an ad campaign, calling it a statement to the world “about the future direction of our business.” She went on to say, “It will be our calling card to people around the world to people who care about the future relationship between business, society and the environment.”
In 2008 the company’s Human Element advertising won a national advertising award for the best overall television commercial. The ad, “The Bond Between Us All,” focused on climate change. The commercial beat out advertisement from brands including Altoids, Bud Light, IKEA, and Nike. Another excellent commercial featured in 2008, is set to a string quartet and features picturesque scenes of nature and human creativity coupled with eloquent narration that describes how the company seeks to embrace life’s most important character, the human element. The narration provides, “The human element is the element of change. It gives us our footing to stand fearlessly and face the future. It is a way of seeing that gives us a way of touching issues, ambitions, lives.”
In May of 2001, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry received a petition from Michigan-based environmental groups seeking public health assessment of dioxin contaminated in Midland, Michigan. In a subsequent report by the agency it was recorded that “levels of dioxins detected in soil in the city of Midland and in the fish in the Tittabawassee River downstream of Midland exceed health-based comparison values.” The report further stated that dioxin is believed to cause carcinogenic effects at extremely low levels of exposure.
In January of 2002, Michigan-based environmental organization, Lone Tree Council, issued a press release calling for “federal probe into major dioxin cover-up in Michigan.” According to the release, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act indicated that Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Russell Harding had suppressed state health assessments that revealed dioxin levels in the Tittabwassee Riber floodplain, which were downstream from the company’s plant in Midland 80 times Michigan’s cleanup standards. In February of 2002, MDEQ announced the Tittabawassee/Saginaw River Flood Plain Dioxin Environmental Assessment Initiative.
In 2007, Dow agreed to three EPA orders issued under the Superfund Act for sediment cleanup on the Tittabawassee River. However, despite this agreement, Dow Chemical has been slow to respond. As recently as 2008, the company claimed that it needed to measure the amount of the pollution before it could establish a cleanup program. Although the company removed contaminants from four environmental hotspots, particularly polluted areas, it has spent over $40 million on sediment sampling as well as other studies. According to the EPA, these areas include some of the highest dioxin levels recorded in the Great Lakes region. In July of 2008 an agreement was reached between Dow Chemical and the EPA to clean up dioxin contamination in the Riverside Boulevard neighborhood.
As of this year environmental groups and the EPA remain frustrated with the progress the company has made. In a March 3 EPA press release, the agency stated that “Dow Chemical Co. has agreed to conduct another Superfund removal action to clean up dioxin contamination in the Tri-Cities area.” The project, focusing on the Saginaw Township’s West Michigan Park, was scheduled to begin in mid-April and go through early June. According to a 2003 work plan issued to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the park “is essentially a level field with an open expanse of grass for ball sports.” The park includes picnic tables and a play area for children. According to the 2003 report issued by MDEQ on Dow’s sampling study the company found that the range of dioxin contamination in the soil in West Michigan Park was 140 to 670 ppt (parts per trillion) with an average of 413 ppt. In 2002, MDEQ established the residential action standard for soil containing dioxin at 90 ppt. According the company’s 2003 work plan, the planned interim measures included a hand-washing station and replacement of sand in children’s play area along with cosmetic measures.
On March 2, , Lisa P. Jackson, the new head of the EPA, sent a letter to community and environmental groups who had voiced concern over Dow’s slow progress, She said that she would stop negotiations with Dow until EPA had been given the opportunity to take the groups’ concerns into consideration. “My goal is to ensure an expeditious and robust cleanup, and I will take steps to ensure that the dioxin contamination is addressed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment and that the process is open and transparent,” she wrote. It has been a long time coming.
10) General Motors (GM)
On July 5, 2007 General Motors Chevrolet division launched its “gas-friendly to gas-free” campaign. The branding effort seeks to reposition GM as an environmentally responsible car company. The press release stated that Chevrolet will “launch a major ad campaign intended to let the world know about its far-reaching approach to reducing petroleum consumption.” In 2007, GM began to run commercials for the Chevrolet Volt, an electric prototype car that was not scheduled for production for several years.
One such ad featured the car sitting on a grassy hill surrounded by children with their ears pressed against the hood. The children ask why the car is humming and a man explains, “That’s the sound of the future, the extended range electric car powered by the miracle of the advanced lithium-ion battery pack. And they expect you get to 40 miles without a drop of gas.” The ad then shows a series of icons representing fuel economy, E85 ethanol, hybrid, electric, fuel cell. It concludes with the motto, “Chevy, from gas friendly to gas free. That’s an American revolution.” According to its website, these efforts include fuel efficiency, biofuels, hybrid, electric, and hydrogen fuel cells.
On September 16, 2008 the company unveiled the Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle. “The Volt symbolizes GM’s commitment to the future,” said Rick Wagoner, the company’s former chairman and CEO. Unlike a traditional hybrid vehicle that is both battery and gas powered, the company claims that the Volt is entirely electric. Although the battery can only go 40 miles on a single charge, a gasoline engine will turn on once needed that will power the electric motor. The company justifies the fact that the car should be considered electric, because the gas engine powers the electric motor and doesn’t power the wheels.
In addition to electric cars, GM has begun advertising its cars that run on ethanol, biofuels and fuel cells. According to a 2008 press release, “GM has been working on hydrogen-powered fuel-cell propulsion systems for 11 years. Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen which is converted onboard into electricity. Powered by hydrogen, the consequence of using fuel cell technology is no emissions. Although this kind of alternative energy would be a remarkable step forward, the company indicates that the technology is still very immature.” The press release adds that “under a carefully scripted development plan at General Motors that culminates in as many as one million affordable FCVs by 2020.” That’s quite a ways a way to be marketing it now.
In 2008, GM vice chairman Bob Lutz appeared on the Colbert Report, a satirical news and comedy program.. Lutz, interviewed by show’s host, Steven Colbert, lauded the environmental benefits of the Volt. Following up, Colbert said “that’s tantamount to admitting that we have to do something about global warming, sir. You don’t believe global warming is real, you said so?” In response, Lutz stated “I accept that the planet is heated, but I, like many noted scientists, don’t believe in the CO2 theory . . . In the opinion of about 32,000 t of the world’s leading scientists” global warming is the result of sun spots. He appeared to be very sincere.
O’Donnell says “GM has long been one of the most anti-environment companies in America’s history, dating back to its efforts to limit car emission standards. Because of their lobbying efforts, they created a loophole to reduce the average fuel economy of a car-makers fleet. GM had legislation passed that provided “if you make certain number of cars that are flex fuel – cars that can take both regular and biofuel – the average fuel economy of all of the company’s cars can go down below emission standards. The loophole enables car companies to use ethanol as a pretext for reducing fuel economy.” The company’s corporate PAC donated to over seven of the Dirty Dozen and Congressman Barton.
In 2007, according to a study by Union of Concerned Scientists, General Motors ranked as the second worst polluter, just above DaimlerChrysler, out of eight major car companies. In addition, GM manufactures the most cars that have 15 MPG or worse in city driving. In 2008 the numbers were not much better for GM. According to greenercars.org, the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy’s site for consumer research on the environment, GM’s numbers have not improved. The company had the most car models on the list with four. Not surprisingly, the Hummer H2, which is exempted from fuel economy regulations because it is considered heavy-duty, was rated number 1.
24/7 Wall St. evaluated the public actions of a number of global companies in order to measure which were engaged in extensive greenwashing. Environmental groups and public relations firms have enumerated several standards that can be used to evaluate whether a company is engaged in the practice. However, at the heart of greenwashing is a company’s desire to represent its business as environmentally friendly at the expense of honestly portraying their environmental character.
Common methods used by corporations include advertising, press releases, and websites. Less obvious methods that are equally pernicious include trade groups that lobby the public on the company’s behalf, touting the adoption of non-governmental standards serving environmental protection, and establishing endowments for green academic research. A number of the companies that 24/7 Wall St. selected have been identified by environmental groups as greenwashers.
In order to demonstrate that greenwashing misrepresents the environmental character of the company, 24/7 Wall St. considered adverse environmental causes in several ways. Chief among these is pollution data. As a result of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 and Pollution Prevention Act, EPA annually collects data from companies on releases and transfers of certain toxic chemicals and waste management activities from industrial facilities. The agency then publishes the data through the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program. As part of the program, the TRI data is indexed and made publicly available through the EPA’s online databases and software.
The TRI database, called the TRI Explorer, allows queries based upon several criteria including industry code, chemical type, and facility. Using TRI explorer, 24/7 Wall St. created toxic chemical release reports based upon industry and facility. Using this methodology we identified the companies which released the largest amount of toxic chemicals according to 27 different industrial codes identified by the EPA. This data included the ranking of each company’s facilities compared to the performance of other companies in the industry. Frequently, the larger the share of the industry the company enjoyed the greater total amount of toxic release.
Relying on the TRI program, a number of organizations, including nonprofits and trade groups, create additional databases that further analyze this information based upon issues including the facilities reporting the release of the toxic chemicals, the companies which own the facilities, the level of toxicity of the chemicals, and the risk of public exposure to the chemicals. 24/7 Wall St. also used these databases, including the Political Economy Research Institute’s Toxic 100 index.
Enforcement data includes court orders, civil actions, and administrative rulings. Generally, these arose from private or governmental concern over the company’s environmental conduct vis-à-vis EPA and State environmental regulations. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed case law and EPA enforcement actions to identify companies that had poor environmental records. In addition to settlements and awards against the companies, 24/7 Wall St. also considered the company’s responses to environmental concerns raised by agencies and the public. The greater the number of actions, the monetary value of the awards or settlements, and the reluctance of the companies to abide by the agreement were all factors that we took into consideration.
Finally, lobbying efforts had a substantial impact on whether companies were on the list. Using OpenSecerts.org, a “nonpartisan guide to money’s influence on U.S. elections and public policy,” 24/7 Wall St. calculated the amount of contributions that each company made through their corporate PACs. Specifically, we considered whether or not the company donated to particular members of the House and Senate who are known to have bad voting records on environmental laws. All of the companies on our list donated to at least three Senators or Congressman who have such records.
By Ash Allen
Edited by Douglas A. McIntyre