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NGO lodges SA’s first ‘greenwashing’ advertising complaint with watchdog against TotalEnergies

NGO lodges SA’s first ‘greenwashing’ advertising complaint with watchdog against TotalEnergies
(Photo: iStock) | Signage for TotalEnergies at the company's headquarters in the La Défense business district in Paris, France. (Photo: Benjamin Girette / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Greenpeace defines greenwashing as ‘a PR tactic used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly, without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact’.

Fossil Ad Ban, a programme of Fossil Free SA, which is a network of South Africans calling for divestment from fossil fuel, has lodged with the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) what it says is South Africa’s first greenwashing complaint, against TotalEnergies.

Greenpeace defines greenwashing as “a PR tactic used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly, without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact”.

The organisation says the practice is problematic because it “lets companies keep business as usual while pretending they’re doing better” and “delays or stops the action we need to move to better systems for people and the planet”.

In a statement announcing the complaint, Fossil Ad Ban said the advert, which is hosted on TotalEnergies’ website, invites individuals to share their “favourite summer moments at SANParks” for a chance to win prizes. The same advertisement claims TotalEnergies is committed to “sustainable development” and “environmental protection”. 

“This false and misleading claim is a clear example of greenwashing, a tactic where companies try to appear environmentally friendly without meaningfully reducing their impact, or even while continuing to have a disastrous impact,” said Fossil Ad Ban campaigner Thameena Dhansay.

“Allowing fossil fuel companies to deceive consumers is incredibly dangerous. It delays the transition to more sustainable practices by hiding the true social and environmental costs of fossil fuel production, the primary driver of the climate crisis. 

“Fighting greenwashing in advertising might seem irrelevant in the grand scheme of the climate crisis. However, marketing and PR are a core tactic that fossil fuel companies use to gain the social licence to keep destroying our planet,” Dhansay said.

“It impedes consumers’ abilities to make informed purchase decisions and hinders policy action by government stakeholders. This has real-life consequences beyond the environment; it affects people’s daily lives.

“With the ARB [Advertising Regulatory Board] currently updating their regulations for sustainability claims, we see our complaint as a necessary step towards addressing fossil fuel greenwashing. We hope this complaint will spark awareness of the dangers of fossil fuel advertising in South Africa and encourage people to critically engage with greenwashing tactics on a broader scale.” 

TotalEnergies did not respond to Daily Maverick’s request for comment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Local advertising industry plays pivotal role in aiding environmental destruction, says Clean Creatives South Africa

Garyn Rapson and Bernadette Versfeld, partners at law firm Webber Wentzel, have written about the ARB’s role in preventing greenwashing. 

“The Code [of Advertising Practice] prohibits the use of advertisements containing any statement or visual presentation which, directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity, inaccuracy, exaggerated claim or otherwise, likely to mislead the consumer,” they explained.

They added that “a consumer or competitor concerned about unqualified claims and statements about environmental matters can lodge a complaint with the ARB requesting that the environmental claims be investigated”.

The news comes days after UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in a fiery address marking World Environment Day, condemned fossil fuel firms as “enablers to planetary destruction”, advocating a prohibition on their advertising.

He highlighted the precedent set by tobacco ad bans due to health risks and implored, “every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies. And I urge news media and tech companies to stop taking fossil fuel advertising. 

“Many in the fossil fuel industry have shamelessly greenwashed, even as they have sought to delay climate action — with lobbying, legal threats and massive ad campaigns. They have been aided and abetted by advertising and PR companies — Mad Men, remember the TV series — fuelling the madness.

“I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction. Stop taking on new fossil fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones. Fossil fuels are not only poisoning our planet, they’re toxic for your brand,” Guterres said. DM

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