The second way greenwashing is so threatening is that it lulls us into a false sense of security.
If we believe that corporations are changing for the good, then we can sit back and let them do their work.
This is exactly what Chevron’s “People Do” campaign was all about.
Indeed, Chao Gunter, director of the Public Media Center in San Francisco, notes that through their misleading ads, “Chevron implies that maybe we don’t need a regulatory framework because the oil companies are taking care of it."
In short, if corporations can trick us into trusting them to do good, they can do whatever they want.
Greenwashing allows for businesses to continue their destructive practices by tossing scraps to us and claiming they’re giving us a whole meal.
Because any real change, any effective climate action, means changing the paradigm.
Real solutions to the climate crisis, like degrowth, building with local materials, agroecology farming, and ecosocialism, all spell disaster for corporations because it means shifting priorities away from profits and towards people and planet.
Regardless of what these companies say, their actions speak louder than their words.
In 1988, while their ads were blanketing TVs and magazines, Chevron’s El Segundo refinery leaked an estimated 252 million gallons of oil into the surrounding groundwater.
And to this day, Chevron refuses to clean up an oil spill so egregious that it came to be known as the "Amazon Chernobyl".
From 1964 to 1992, Texaco, which is now owned by Chevron, dumped 72 billion liters of toxic water polluting a 1,700 mile area in the Ecuadorian rainforest and tainting the water supply for the indigenous communities living near the oil wells.
But Chevron isn’t the only corporation claiming they’re doing good while they quietly destroy our surroundings.
Home Depot, for example, recently had to pay a $28 million settlement because it illegally dumped toxic waste in California despite running marketing campaigns aimed at consumers to recycle their homemaking materials.
And Nestle, with its claims of sustainable water and packaging, is anything but sustainable.
First of all, wrapping water in plastic is causing a single-use plastic waste crisis, but to add insult to injury, Nestle’s subsidiaries like, Arrowhead Water, which sources its water partly from California springs, an area notoriously racked by a mega-drought, have been repeatedly accused of sucking aquifers dry wherever they operate.
These exploitative corporate practices reveal that to make the most profit they can, corporations try to externalize as many costs as they can.
And if they can say that they aren’t externalizing costs while they actually are, then they've won… but at the cost of the planet and the people slaving away under brutal conditions.
Greenwashing and corporate social responsibility are tactics.
Plain and simple.
They are used as ways to distract from the metaphorical boot on our throats and on the throat of our planet.
These misleading marketing campaigns are just another example of the resilience of capitalism.
For as long as capitalism continues to reign, so too will the laborious task of deciphering misleading messaging.
Capitalism is the problem.
Think about how hard it is to find “sustainable” goods, and even after all that hard work it’s still difficult to figure out whether the company is telling the truth.
Because here’s the thing.
There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
But the reason why there is no ethical consumption under capitalism is because there are no ethical corporations under capitalism.
Even B-corporations like Patagonia are still driven by the profit motive and the bottom line.
All this means that to end greenwashing, to create economies where materials and goods are crafted to fulfill uses rather than to fill wallets and make profits, we must end capitalism.
But building the power to do so, especially in imperial core countries like the United States, is a multi-decade process, and the climate crisis demands action now.
Which is why we need to start implementing harm-reduction strategies that use available tools today.
These look like forcing corporate transparency through lawsuits, third-party auditing, and using regulating bodies to actually enforce regulations as a way to make corporations live up to their promises.
But importantly, these harm-reduction strategies must mesh with the longer term work of building a post-capitalist world.
One that envisions an economy built on truths, on real environmental stewardship, and on human and community well-being.