Energy & Environment

Corporate Greenwashing and Global Warming

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Much of the environmental activism combating global warming is based on the rhetoric of personal responsibility and consumerism: if we buy more “green” products, global warming can be stopped. But can we really buy our way out of rapidly rising temperatures and increasing devastation from human-created environmental disasters? Read on to learn about the emphasis on personal responsibility in environmentalism, and the arguments for and against such an approach.

Global Warming: “You” Can Fix It

It is nearly impossible to find articles addressing climate change without finding a list of things that “you” can do to help stop a massive planetary process.

These tips are meant to be empowering and are geared toward combating a frightening sense of apathy about issues of dire importance like global warming. Climate change in particular is something that many people perceive as being in the distant future, and therefore a sense of denial colors so many people’s thinking about climate change.

Lists of “Top 10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Dioxide Emissions Footprint” that abound on the internet are meant to help break down global warming into something digestible; something that is not so colossal that you might as well give up before you start trying to do anything about it. People and organizations concerned about climate change want to break it down into little things that “we can all do everyday” to combat it. Talk of “greening your commute,” “greening your home,” and “buying energy efficient products” dominate many discussions about addressing global warming.

However, critics of this approach point out that the desire to do “something” may be just as damaging–if not more so–than recognizing that this is a huge problem with no easy solution. Discussing global warming as though it can be adequately addressed by individuals using fluorescent light bulbs arguably risks minimizing the gravity of the situation.


Gas, technology, and car companies that make so many daily commutes possible engage in practices that have been accused of creating enormous amounts of pollution and unnecessary toxic waste. Instead of encouraging actions that target these corporate practices at a systemic level, many efforts to “fight” global warming may actually encourage the greenwashing of these massive corporations.

Greenwashing is usefully defined on the Greenwashing Index–an online-based, awareness-driven attempt to “help keep advertising honest”–in the following way:

Everyone’s heard the expression ‘whitewashing’ — it’s defined as ‘a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts, especially in a political context.’ ‘Greenwashing’ is the same premise, but in an environmental context. It’s greenwashing when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush. A classic example is an energy company that runs an advertising campaign touting a ‘green’ technology they’re working on — but that ‘green’ technology represents only a sliver of the company’s otherwise not-so-green business, or may be marketed on the heels of an oil spill or plant explosion.

People who criticize corporate greenwashing argue that articles and organizations encouraging people to buy “green” products are actually encouraging people to increase corporate profits by endorsing greenwashing practices. Thus, companies all the way from airlines to those that sell home appliances and personal beauty products engage heavily–and successfully–in greenwashing.

The meat industry often takes the lead in greenwashing. These companies actively distance themselves from the environmental devastation that accompanies factory farming and associated industries, as described by Scientific American here:

Current production levels of meat contribute between 14 and 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of ‘CO2-equivalent’ greenhouse gases the world produces every year. It turns out that producing half a pound of hamburger for someone’s lunch a patty of meat the size of two decks of cards releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles.

Meat company Tyson, for example, has advertised itself as animal-friendly, claiming to slaughter its animals in a “humane” manner. But advocates point out that these claims are greenwashed, as the pigs Tyson sells live their lives in cages so small that they cannot move one step back or forward. Critics point out the greenwashed term that Tyson uses for this torturous practice is “individual housing.” This kind of advertising also erases the tremendous environmental destruction that can result from factory farming. When consumers are encouraged to buy “green” and “ethical” meat, they are encouraged not to think about the ways that any form of mass-meat production inherently contributes to  global warming.

Critics of greenwashing would argue that encouraging people concerned about global warming to “fight” it by changing their buying practices often only encourages companies to simply change the ways they advertise themselves: once they market themselves as “greener,” consumers can feel better about buying what are often more expensive “green” products, and help the corporation to turn a profit.

Unequal Burdens of Personal Responsibility

Critiques of the “you can stop global warming” movement are also concerned that harm can occur on an individual, not just corporate, level.

This individualist focus arguably takes attention away from the ways that the environmentally destructive practices that are driving global warming are not the result of individual failings, but rather of massive structures of capitalism. Sustained collective action, rather than individualized consumption choices, are required to combat these larger systems of oppression that fundamentally shape global warming.

When considering the potential impact of “what you can do to reduce global warming” lists, it is important, also, to ask: who is this “you” that these forms of media are talking to? Awareness website Time for Change refers to “a drought in Africa” because of “your increased yearly consumption of fuels,” which makes it clear that the intended “you” is not African, but probably North American. However, even within the presumed North American audience, the burden of personal responsibility arguably falls differently on people of color and people with dis/abilities.

“What you can do to stop global warming” lists that advocate for increased use of public transportation and biking instead of driving seem to work only for those who live in and near cities with accessible and affordable public transit systems. Public transportation systems–even relatively extensive ones like those found in New York City–are often of vastly unequal quality, cost, and distribution.

When cities are designed in ways that lead to modest-income workers of color being driven out of living in city centers where they are often employed and thus must have long commutes to work, these workers are disproportionately impacted by the very climate disasters that are becoming more frequent with global warming. “What you can do” lists encouraging the use of public transportation as a means to fight climate change take for granted the idea that the “you” the list is addressing are people who have cars and who have consistent, reliable access to public transportation–the structure of which is often biased against modest-income neighborhoods of color to begin with.

Bike riding is also often touted as something “you” can do to put a dent in rising carbon dioxide levels. But not everyone can simply hop on a bicycle: the “you” addressed here is clearly not a person with mobility-related dis/abilities who already has inadequate access to public transportation. Additionally, in neighborhoods like those in the South Bronx that the government and corporations target as dumping grounds, it can actually be unhealthy to ride your bicycle–when you exercise in highly polluted areas, you increase the amount of toxins you are inhaling. With asthma rates already devastatingly high in areas like this due to the practices of governments and corporations, encouraging people to ride their bikes as though everyone can is simply misguided. Individualist steps to address climate change can sometimes backfire, and raise other causes for concern.

So…can “you” stop global warming?

Alone? Perhaps not. Changing individual consumer practices shift some of the priorities of corporations, which puts at least the rhetoric of fighting climate change at the fore. However, these shifts don’t necessarily end environmentally destructive corporate practices. Collective action that targets systemic causes of global warming rather than displacing all the responsibility–and therefore, the blame–onto unconcerned individuals might be a common place to start.


Huffington Post: 14 U.S. Cities That Could Disappear Over the Next Century, Thanks to Global Warming

About News: Top Ten Things You Can Do to Reduce Global Warming

Guardian: What’s the Carbon Footprint of… a New Car?

Greenwashing Index: About Greenwashing

Business Pundit: The Top 25 Greenwashed Products in America

Scientific American: How Meat Contributes to Global Warming

Animal Legal Defense Fund: Tyson Exposed by Former Suppliers’ Convictions

One Green Planet: Five Ways Factory Farming is Killing the Environment

CounterPunch: Global Warming is Economic Imperialism

Policy Link: For Millions of Low-Income Workers Left Behind by Public Transit Systems, Every Day’s a Snow Day

Daily News: Bronx, Brooklyn Residents Claim City Targeting Their Neighborhoods for Waste Transfer Stations

Jennifer Polish
Jennifer Polish is an English PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC, where she studies non/human animals and the racialization of dis/ability in young adult literature. When she’s not yelling at the computer because Netflix is loading too slowly, she is editing her novel, doing activist-y things, running, or giving the computer a break and yelling at books instead. Contact Jennifer at



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