From Green Warriors to Greenwashers
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Source: PR Watch
From Green Warriors to Greenwashers
by Dr. Sharon Beder
When Greenpeace emerged as an international organization in the 1970s, it
embodied a spirit of courageous protest by activists who were willing to place
their bodies on the line to call attention to environmental injustice. Its mission
was to "bear witness" to environmental abuses and take direct nonviolent
action to prevent them.
In the 1990s, however, a new current of thought emerged, both at the
international level and at the level of national affiliates such as Greenpeace
Australia. Greenpeace leaders and many members began to talk of going
beyond negative criticism. The Greenpeace Australia website proudly asserts
this new philosophy: "We work with industry and government to find
This approach carries an obvious emotional and intellectual appeal, but it
also carries dangers. Greenpeace continues its traditional work of exposing
some of the worst instances of environmental degradation, but its new focus on
"solutions" can undermine that work. Its activists are often committed and
genuinely concerned to save the environment, but are caught in the
contradiction between "bearing witness" and the compromises that arise in the
process of seeking solutions.
The philosophy that Greenpeace espouses today contrasts markedly with
positions that it took in the early 1990s, when "green marketing" first emerged
as part of a strategy that the PR industry calls "cause-related marketing." A
series of media reports and books, such as The Green Consumer Guide by
John Elkington and Julia Hales, gave the impression that the environment could
be saved if individuals changed their shopping habits and bought
environmentally sound products. There was a surge of advertisements claiming
environmental benefits, and green imagery became a symbol used to sell
When green marketing first emerged, it came under criticism from a
number of Greenpeace campaigners. Paul Gilding, then head of Greenpeace
Australia, described it as a strategy of "Bung a dolphin on the label and we'll be
right." Greenpeace Magazine asked rhetorically whether people should buy
recycled paper from a company that pollutes rivers with pulp mill effluent.
"It's not that all these ads are untrue," observed Peter Dykstra, then media
director of Greenpeace USA. The problem, he said, is that "they depict 5
percent of environmental virtue to mask the 95 percent of environmental vice."
Juliet Kellner called this the "bit-less-bad" trap, where green claims for one
aspect of a product belie other aspects of the product or company policies.
Yet this is just what Greenpeace has done for the Olympic games
scheduled to be held in Sydney, Australia in the year 2000. They have not only
allowed the organizers to "bung a dolphin on the label," but they have helped
market environmental virtues of the Games while ignoring some key
environmental vices. In particular, as I pointed out in my previous article (PR
Watch vol. 6, no. 2), they helped sell the concept of the Green Olympics to
the International Olympics Committee without alerting it to the extent of the
toxic waste problem.
In recent years, Greenpeace has staged protests to highlight the toxic
waste on land surrounding the Olympic site. It has also campaigned and
initiated legal action against some decisions of the Olympic Coordination
Authority (OCA) which breached the environmental guidelines that
Greenpeace helped write.
Even today, however, Greenpeace continues to promote the Games as
"green." The Greenpeace web site
(http://www.greenpeace.org/Olympics/summary.htm) states that "the Olympic
site itself has been made safe." A June 1999 Greenpeace brochure states that
"Sydney authorities were thorough in their efforts to remediate before
construction began. Most of the waste remains on site, in state-of-the-art
landfills, covered with clay, vegetated to blend in with the Olympic site."
These statements contrast with Greenpeace's past history of campaigning
against the use of landfills to dispose of toxic waste, particularly when the
waste includes dioxin, organochlorines and heavy metals. Greenpeace has
campaigned against this in the past because it is impossible to prevent these
toxic materials from leaking into underlying groundwater. The major landfills on
the Olympic site contain these sorts of wastes without even linings to mitigate
the flow of leachate through the underlying soil. When I questioned
Greenpeace's current Olympic campaigners, they seemed unaware of the
absence of liners, which makes me wonder what basis they have for labeling
the landfills "state of the art."
In its own literature, Greenpeace Australia still states that "landfills
eventually leak pollution into the surrounding environment" and makes it clear
that this is not a suitable disposal method for waste near the Olympic site. Yet,
as part of its green marketing role, Greenpeace Australia has turned round and
stated categorically that an unlined landfill on the Olympic site is "safe."
Darryl Luscombe, Toxics Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, wrote in
a 1997 letter to the editor that Greenpeace has long advocated the closure of
Castlereagh, a landfill facility on the outskirts of suburban Sydney that leaked
despite being chosen for its impermeable clay soil (unlike the more permeable
soils at the Olympic site). When asked what he thought of the landfills on the
Olympic site, he opined that the biggest issue was what was going to happen to
the waste afterwards. The landfills should only be a temporary solution, he
argued, since "tens of thousands of liters" of material was leaching out of them.
He admitted there was "no guarantee" that the government would do anything
more once the Olympic Coordination Authority ceases to exist, and the
government had made no commitments to do any further remediation after the
"The site is safer than it was," Luscombe said when asked if it was realistic
to expect that any further cleanup would occur on site after the Games.
Previously the area was a toxic waste dump, he explained, but "now there is a
toxic waste dump that is more highly managed."
According to Blair Palese, participation in the "green Games" was an
opportunity for Greenpeace "to push for environmental solutions." In reality,
however, the most likely legacy of the year 2000 Olympic Games will be the
notion that landfilling toxic waste is an acceptable way to deal with it. By
endorsing this "solution," Greenpeace has provided an excuse for other
waste-generating industries to continue with business as usual. Its public
acceptance of the "remediation" process on the Olympic site, and its active
promotion of the Olympics as green, has been interpreted as an endorsement
of landfills as a safe way to dispose of toxic waste. Greenpeace has helped
turn the site and its surroundings into highly desirable real estate. They are now
suggesting this can be done elsewhere.
Sydney's example has not been lost on other potential host cities for future
Olympic Games. Toronto is bidding for the 2008 Games and has formed an
Environmental Committee in an effort to put together a "green" bid. Luscombe
traveled to Toronto to attend this committee's first meeting. Toronto has even
copied the idea of siting the Olympic athlete's village on a former industrial
contaminated site. The land was originally going to be the site of low-income
housing but the remediation would have cost too much. Now the Sydney
Olympic example has shown how the cleanup can be done on the cheap. The
added bonus for the Toronto bidders is that if they turn the village over to low
income housing afterwards, they might get endorsements from social justice
groups that opposed Toronto's bid in 1996.
And don't think the Olympic precedent is being lost on developers in other
parts of Australia. The greenwashing in this case suits not only the Olympic
organizers, but also manufacturers who generate toxic wastes, those who bury
them, and developers who seek to profit from the land on which these toxic
wastes have been buried. A whole polluting industry that Greenpeace has been
trying to phase out has now been given a PR boost by Greenpeace Australia.
The landfills are not the only problem associated with the Olympic site, as
Greenpeace itself acknowledges. In a "Special Olympic Report" issued in
September 1998, Greenpeace included an "environmental report card" that
gave the project mixed marks. The Olympic site's air-conditioning system
received a grade of "F" for using chemicals that attack earth's ozone layer and
contribute to global warming--a decision that the Greenpeace brochure
describes as "promises betrayed." The "report card" also gives an "F' grade to
toxic remediation of land near the Olympic site and the bay.
Current Greenpeace literature on the "Green Games" is full of praise for the
solar design of the athletes' village and other environmental virtues. It says
nothing whatsoever, however, about the dangers posed by the Lidcombe
Liquid Waste Plant (LWP), which is located between the Olympic sporting
facilities and the athlete's village. This omission is particularly noteworthy since
the proximity of the athletes' village to the LWP was known to Greenpeace
when it offered its design for the village. A year before Greenpeace issued its
"Special Olympic Report," in fact, Greenpeace's Darryl Luscombe made a
1997 submission to the government in which he argued that the plant "should
be phased out as a matter of priority."
Concerns raised in Luscombe's submission included "health and safety
issues associated with the close proximity (240 meters) of the LWP to existing
or proposed residential areas (e.g. Newington/Olympic village)" and its
"potential to contribute significant adverse effects on the area during major
public events such as the Olympics." He noted "complaints from nearby
residents regarding noxious odors and VOC emissions," and warned, "A
facility that emits toxic, carcinogenic, persistent and bioaccumulative
compounds to the environment, particularly within 250 meters of residential
housing, clearly contradicts all of the principles of sound urban planning and
Greenpeace Olympics Campaign International Coordinator Blair Palese
cites the Olympics Report Card as evidence of Greenpeace's integrity and
independence, noting that the report card gives failing marks in several areas to
the Olympic Coordination Authority. She sees nothing wrong, however, with
continuing to endorse the games as green. "Greenpeace doesn't believe
anything is perfect," she said, "We don't believe demanding absolute success in
advance makes sense."
"You can't promote these as the green Games on the world stage while at
the same time allowing the use of HCFCs in the cooling system of one of the
main venues, especially when there are alternatives such as ammonia," said
Greenpeace Olympics campaigner Michael Bland in an interview with New
Scientist magazine. Yet this is just what Greenpeace is doing, despite its report
Nor is this shift in direction confined to the Australian branch. Greenpeace
International has written to Olympic sponsors, including BHP, Coca-Cola,
General Motors-Holden, McDonalds and others, inviting them to use the
"Green Games" to enhance their own environmental images: "As sponsors, you
have the opportunity to play a key role in this success. One of the many
benefits of being part of the Green Games is the chance to demonstrate your
company's commitment to the environment and to future generations. The
Sydney Olympics offer your staff the opportunity to take part in a long-term
global initiative to protect the world's environment. . . . Greenpeace would like
to work with you to explore the areas in which you can make an environmental
contribution during the Sydney 2000 Games."
To take just one example from the companies on this list, BHP was named
one of the worst 10 corporations in 1995 by Multinational Monitor for
polluting the Ok Tedi River in Papua New Guinea. According to the Monitor,
the pollution amounted to a "daily dose of more than 80,000 tons of toxic
mining waste." In 1996, BHP settled a legal battle over its pollution by agreeing
to pay local landowners more than $300 million. At the Olympics, however, it
will get to "demonstrate its commitment to the environment" by supporting
energy conservation or the use of environmentally-safe refrigerants.
Greenpeace Australia has done a similar service for Nike, a company
much in need of good PR following media coverage of working conditions in
sweatshops that produce Nike shoes in third world countries. In its 1998
Olympic Report, Greenpeace congratulates Nike for promising to phase out
PVC in its products, making "PVC free sportswear available to athletes and
consumers." The report features a picture of Greenpeace presenting a Nike
representative with a cake in the shape of a green Nike shoe, complete with
A Solutions-Oriented Approach
Although it would be an oversimplification to say that Greenpeace's change
in direction was prompted purely by PR and financial concerns, the change
occurred in the early 1990s, while Greenpeace was in the process of
organizational soul-searching as its membership began to decline after the
boom years of 1989-1992. The number of paying supporters worldwide fell
from 4.8 million in 1990 to 3.1 million in 1995. The loss was particularly
pronounced in the US, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, the
Netherlands and Australia. In Australia subscriptions declined from 103,000 in
1992 to 60,000 in 1997.
Like many large environmental organizations that depend on subscriptions
and donations, Greenpeace became sensitive to media portrayals of it as being
"too radical" and "too negative." When Paul Gilding was promoted from head
of Greenpeace Australia to head of Greenpeace International in 1992, he
argued that the organization should reinvent itself as an organization that offered
"solutions" and worked with industry and government to get those solutions in
place. "If we had just kept on saying there was a problem, then people would
have switched off," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
When Lynette Thorstensen replaced Gilding as executive director of
Greenpeace Australia, she continued his emphasis on "solution strategies" such
as the Olympic Games village design and work on a CFC-free refrigerator.
"Greenpeace is now convinced the best path to progress is via the country's
boardrooms," said Australia's Good Weekend magazine when it interviewed
Thorstensen in 1993. The state Minister for the Olympics, Bruce Baird, wasn't
complaining. "They've shown a much more constructive approach lately," he
told Good Weekend. "It is a new style of environmentalism I find much more
persuasive. Before they were seen as ultra-green and opposing everything."
Gilding's business-friendly approach was unpopular with "old guard"
environmentalists, and in 1994 he was ousted from his position as head of
Greenpeace International. A year and a half later, however, the
"solution"/business partnership approach won a major victory when Thilo Bode
was appointed to head the organization. An economist from industry with
World Bank experience, Bode had no environmental credentials before being
appointed to head Greenpeace Germany in 1989. He was hired for his
management skills, which he demonstrated by making Greenpeace Germany
the richest of all Greenpeace operations. Bode also "engineered internal
changes that reduced the power of the seven-member Greenpeace
International Board," according to Time magazine, "and shifted authority to the
Like Gilding, Bode believes in working with industry and allowing the
Greenpeace name to be used to endorse "green" products such as CFC-free
refrigerators made by Westinghouse. This is despite the fact that Westinghouse
was listed in The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash as a prime example of
corporate greenwashing. "In the US, when people hear the name
"Westinghouse" they think of household appliances," it states. "Only rarely
does the company publicize another side of its business: nuclear weapons and
reactors." This effort at image control will no doubt benefit from the
endorsement that Greenpeace has given to its new fridges.
One of Bode's "solutions-oriented" initiatives has been to work with car
companies to produced more fuel-efficient cars. Greenpeace Germany has
invested $1.3 million in a Renault car to cut its fuel consumption by about half.
This investment and the ensuing promotion of the car has caused some disquiet
within Greenpeace among those who believe that the best way to adequately
address pollution is to promote public transport rather than energy-efficient
cars. One campaigner told Polly Ghazi, who was writing for the New
Statesman, "We should not be getting into the business of selling cars of any
Even Greenpeace USA is using "solution-oriented" campaigns that give
"positive support for new technologies, products, and companies where
appropriate," Tim Andrews told Time magazine in 1996. "It's an effort to sit
down with businesses instead of coming out of the woodwork yelling. We use
that as a last resort, yes. But we're trying a more diplomatic approach."
In London, Greenpeace UK hosted a $600-per-head conference in 1996
to identify solutions that could be achieved through alliances between
environmentalists and industry. In attendance were delegates from corporations
like ICI (a British-based multinational chemical company), British Nuclear
Fuels (BNFL), BP, Shell, British Agrochemicals and Nestlé. Greenpeace UK
Director Peter Melchett argues that "solutions enforcement" is a new form of
In her article in the New Statesman, Polly Ghazi argued that Greenpeace
has strayed from its defense of nature to forge "closer ties with its former
business enemies," noting that its support of the British Petroleum oil company
for its solar power initiatives gave BP huge "public relations capital" for a mere
investment of 0.1 percent of the BP group's gross income. Ghazi's article
prompted a reply from the campaign program director of Greenpeace UK,
who wrote that Greenpeace still opposed "the plan of the other 99.9 per cent
part of that company to expand its oil operations into the Atlantic. . . . In the
course of our campaigns governments often turn from being opponents to
allies. That does not mean Greenpeace is becoming an adjunct or supporter."
More recently BP Amoco has received environmental criticism in the form
of a special Greenhouse Greenwash Award from the US group Corporate
Watch for its "Plug in the Sun" Program. Corporate Watch noted that "the
company hopes that by spending just .01% of its portfolio on solar as it
explores for more oil and sells more gasoline, it can convince itself and others
of its own slogan: BP knows, BP cares, BP is our leader."
In a similar satiric vein, Greenpeace USA has given BP Amoco's CEO,
John Browne, an award for "Best Impression of an Environmentalist" for his
"portrayal of BP Amoco as a leader in solar energy" while running a company
"with far greater investment in dirty fossil fuels that are causing global warming."
Greenpeace USA has opposed drilling and exploration by BP Amoco in
Alaska. In this case, the "solutions" approach taken by Greenpeace UK clearly
conflicts with Greenpeace campaigns in the USA.
As these examples illustrate, Greenpeace still carries on its historic mission
of "bearing witness," but its focus on "solutions" has required Greenpeace to
sometimes turn a blind eye to the environmental sins of the companies it works
with. The problem is not that everyone in Greenpeace has sold out but that the
new emphasis on solutions is leading to compromises that the former
Greenpeace would not have considered.
Corporations and their business magazines are encouraging this nascent
tendency, which they see as evidence of growing "maturity" on the part of
Greenpeace. "We've reached a detente with Greenpeace," a spokesman for
the multinational chemical firm Hoechst told Time magazine. A spokesman for
Bayer, another multinational chemical company, said "we can conduct
substantive discussions with their people."
"Some in Greenpeace acknowledge that the group's confrontational tactics
are losing effect and can be costly," crowed Chemical Week, noting the shift
to "solutions-based campaigning" and to "targeting shareholders and bankers
involved in project finance."
"Mature" is also a word Michael Bland uses to describe the new
Greenpeace. Its approach is "now more sophisticated," he says, because it
recognizes "the potential to use the market when that is appropriate."
"Maturity," however, can either mark the culmination of development or the beginning of decline. And "sophistication" is sometimes a mere nudge away from sophistry. Greenpeace campaigners may view their emphasis on "solutions" as a natural evolution and a necessary response to changing world conditions. For some environmentalists such as myself, however, the fear is that this new path is a slippery slope. Will Greenpeace continue to uphold the
principles of its founders, or will it become just another symbolic marketing
hook, a subscription sold to suburban householders to be taken in regular
doses as a palliative for environmental anxiety while they continue their
lifestyles as polluting producers and consumers?
The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash, by Jed Greer and Kenny Bruno,
points out that "industry has devised a far-reaching program to convince
people that [transnational corporations] are benefactors of the global
environment." It warns citizens to look under the surface of corporate
announcements of environmental initiatives "and be aware of the overall context
in which they exist. It is clear that certain basic characteristics of corporate
culture have not changed." What may be changing, however, is the culture of
Greenpeace so that corporate culture is no longer seen to be the problem.
that it would phase out
the use of polyvinyl
chloride in its
products. The photo
inset at the top right is
with a shoe-shaped
cake on their decision
to go PVC-free." The
only part of most Nike
shoes made from PVC
is the "swoosh,"
according to a Nike
Dr. Sharon Beder is a professional civil engineer and associate professor in
Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She is the author of several books, including The Nature of Sustainable
Development, The New Engineer, Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing, and Global
Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, as well as numerous articleson environmental and other issues, many of which are available on her website at http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/sbeder/.
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