Why do fossil fuel companies insist on lying via greenwashing?

Climate Change Nov 04, 2020

Shell, the world's 7th largest polluter, asked the public what we were willing to change to prevent climate change... The internet clapped back.

It was glorious, thousands responded to call out yet another attempt at greenwashing from a fossil fuel giant. In case you missed it, here's the tweet that kicked it off, followed by a recap of responses.

Shell even went as far as hiding some of the comments, including this brilliant tweet which hits the nail on the head as far as getting to the root of social change.

This isn't the first publicity stunt pulled off by a top polluter. BP has famously pushed the carbon footprint calculator, a marketing ploy they dust off and circulate every few years, to imbed the guilt of emissions onto the public. Chevron has been dipping in and out of this too, publishing (now deleted) videos* showing natural gas can help lower your household emissions. The collective industry is pushing HARD to make natural gas the poster child of climate sustainability. SPOILER ALERT: It's not. But with messages like "It creates the energy to get the laundry done with up to 60% less CO2 emissions than coal" and no mention of the more damaging methane pollution which goes hand in hand with natural gas, it's easy to be tricked into thinking fossil fuel companies might be turning over a new leaf.

*You can catch one of the videos by swiping to the end of this post.

All this fossil fuel fuckery got me thinking, why do fossil fuel companies greenwash? And it comes down to 4 interconnected points.

1 | To Seed Doubt and Confusion

An informed and aligned public is dangerous. They have the power to not only demand change but make change happen. Big polluters (including the fathers of plastic pollution such as Coca-Cola and Nestle) know a sure-fire way to stop change is to divide with confusion. All they need to do is sprinkle a little uncertainty, via statements of outright denial and misleading data, into the melting pot of public opinion and hey presto, the aligned and informed are diluted into the partially informed who are arguing about which facts and figures are right, rather than collectively pointing to the monster that is fossil fuel industry.

This tactic of seeding doubt and confusion, over who and what is causing climate change and what is and isn't sustainable, creates a public that is less informed and therefore less capable of creating the pressure to ensure change.

Doubt and confusion enable the fossil fuel industry to continue with environmental and social harm, whilst also enlisting the added benefit of presenting fossil fuel companies as do-gooders. Their perpetual harm to planet and people (particularly BIPOC) hides behind the greenwashed message that tricks the public into looking elsewhere, namely at themselves and their habits.

Doubt and confusion is nothing new, it is a product the oil and gas industry have been pushing since the 1970s, ever since they discovered greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels contribute drastically to climate change, and subsequently covered it up.

Learn more: Listen to the BBC Radio 4 podcast 'How they made us doubt everything".

2 | For Public Perception

A 2015 Nielsen poll showed 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. Among millennials, the number jumps to 72%. If sustainability sells, then public perception on perceived sustainability is important to any business’ bottom line but is crucial if you are a company that is the exact opposite of sustainable.

Oil and gas companies know a growing number of consumers are environmentally conscious and seek products that align with those values. They need buy-in from these consumers and so spend millions trying to simply appear as companies’ modern-day consumers can align with.

Appearing sustainable, with messaging that suggests they are doing everything they can to battle climate change whilst simultaneously smearing everything in images of plants and using as much of the colour green as possible, sends signals to the public - especially the confused public - that oil and gas are doing the work to align with their values.

Simply appearing green and sustainable masks environmental and social harm and is enough to add to public confusion and doubt.

3 | To Shift Responsibility

Greenwashing is misdirection, used to shift the blame of emissions onto consumers however, one third of emissions are created by just 20 companies, all oil and gas.

While consumers are end-users of products and services, fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) are responsible for creating most emissions associated with them. Nearly all greenhouse gases (GHG) can be traced back to fossil fuels, whether through leaks in pipelines, transportation, or energy used in production and our homes.

The public perception of responsibility, alongside doubt and confusion, plays a part in allowing accountability to shift from the creators of the emissions to the end-user. When the majority of people aren't informed about who is responsible or what is truly sustainable, it's easy to manipulate the public and drip feed the idea  it is them alone who are at fault, and them alone who need to change.

4 | To Continue Making Profit

The bottom line... It's always about money. Profits are the driving focus of fossil fuel execs; the industry is worth approximately 85 billion a year.

While profit can be made from renewable energy, the returns are steady, and the volume, though infinite, is often dependent on uncontrollable natural weather conditions. Meanwhile, the profit margins of fossil fuels, of which there is a limited supply, fluctuate with availability and economic demand, which can be manipulated. Essentially, oil, gas, and coal = bigger profit margins.

The cost of being truly sustainable, which is full divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy systems, appears to be an unacceptable move to fossil fuel execs and shareholders, given they are slow to make even the smallest of transitions. Greenwashing enables corporations to continue pursuing profit from traditional sources (i.e. fossil fuels) whilst touting a message of sustainability, and all the while, money continues to roll in.

As we move closer and closer to 1.5c warming, it is essential to keep an eye firmly trained on big polluters, who try to greenwash the dirt from cupboards, and hold them accountable for their major contributions to climate change and ecological disaster.


Activist and organizer with Greenpeace Vancouver. Writes about climate and social justice, feminism, greenwashing, and fossil fuel fuckery.

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