Opinionista Roland Ngam 18 July 2021

Eco chambers: Beware the tsunami of greener-than-thou companies

You may have noticed that the following words and concepts are popping up everywhere: Clean, green, sustainable, organic, grain fed, 100% biodegradable, eco-this and that, certified green, net-zero, 100% renewable. Many of these words are used to jump on the green bandwagon even when there is no commitment to pollute less. There is a term for this: Greenwashing.

Roland Ngam

Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

André Gorz’s seminal 1974 essay Leur écologie et la nôtre begins with the following prophetic words: 

Talking about ecology is like talking about universal suffrage and Sunday rest: at first, the entire bourgeoisie and the ruling elite will tell you that you want their ruin, that you want anarchy and backwardness. Later, when the force of reality and popular pressure becomes overwhelming, they will grant you what you were denied yesterday and basically, nothing changes.

I think about these words a lot when I watch TV or drive around town on one business or the other. They come flooding back every time I see a new advert or whenever another massive billboard goes up by my office. 

Suddenly, after decades of proclaiming that the climate crisis is a hoax invented by tree huggers and socialists who have nothing better to do with their time, everybody is promising that they are unshakeable defenders of the environment.

Governments are suddenly remembering that human beings have a right to clean air and water; that animals have a right to life; and that future generations have a right to the flora and fauna that we now enjoy.

Courts in Belgium and Holland have reaffirmed these rights and ordered political leaders and multinationals to reveal what they are doing to clean up their act. We now have templates and precedent to enact binding laws that hold governments and corporations responsible for their actions. 

Unfortunately, these positive changes did not happen because adults woke up one day and had an epiphany — far from it. It has taken a generation of sick and tired children to remind the political elite that we need to stop privatising water, air, mineral resources, roads, electricity, food and everything else. 

As young people around the world declare that they are sick and tired of the greed and ecocide caused by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, corporations are also scrambling to redo their mission statements and proclaim that they are indefatigable champions of environmental rights, fair pay, equality, non-sexism and non-racialism, etc, etc. 

You may have noticed that the following words and concepts are popping up everywhere: clean, green, sustainable, organic, grain fed, 100% biodegradable, eco-this and that, certified green, net-zero, 100% renewable. Many of these words are used to jump on the green bandwagon even when there is no commitment to pollute less. There is a term for this. Greenwashing. 

Greenwashing can be defined as the art of representing a company’s products and/or processes as good for the environment when they are either not at all or only partially so. In some cases, corporations make completely unverifiable claims about their products/processes’ ability to help reduce the global carbon footprint to get a bigger share of the growing “conscious consumer” cohort. They issue claims about completely eliminating the waste generated from their products, or their plastics being compostable or that all their raw materials are ethically sourced. 

We must be wary of this tsunami of latter-day greener-than-thou companies. Carbon emissions are soaring again after dropping by 17% in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has also witnessed a massive expansion of the gig economy as businesses opt to expand their digital footprint and casualise their workforce. If we are all green, and if all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, who is responsible for all the new methane and CO2 in the atmosphere? Why are all the billionaires getting richer during the pandemic? Who are all these new casual workers working for?  

What is even more dangerous is that we are witnessing the concomitant emergence of a certification industrial complex whose main line of business is covering high-polluting companies with a veneer of green respectability. The firms that seek their services use environmentalism as a veneer of good corporate behaviour, but behind the scenes nothing changes. Framed “triple-A green certification” occupies a prominent position on company walls. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

These cons have existed in the area of fair trade (not the organisation Fairtrade) for years. A few years ago, I did some research with a coffee cooperative that has sold coffee to all the major global coffee brands that you have consumed. This cooperative had tried to obtain a fair trade certification to get better prices for its coffee in the Global North. After working on its application file for more than two years with a certification agency in Europe, it decided one day to pull out of the process. I was curious to know why it had opted to maintain the status quo instead of doing everything to get more money for its co-operators. 

The general manager of the cooperative explained to me that: “I have realised that these things are just a scam. We have an agency asking us to pay them thousands of dollars for a certification — meaning that we are transferring more money from poor villagers to Europe. Is that normal? After that, they want us to show them resting shades for workers on every farm as well as payslips to show that every worker earns a living wage. How do you prove that the villager who owns a one-hectare plantation pays himself a living wage? Where do they get money to build all these shades? And if their children ever set foot in that one-hectare plantation — it is child labour. Do the children of farmers in Europe not help their parents pick apples and so on?”

You must have seen some coffee and cocoa brands on TV swearing that they have helped increase rural farmers’ earnings by x percent. How can they guarantee that when they get most of their beans from middlemen? I will tell you this: middlemen are some of the crooked business people who exist in the African countryside. They use all kinds of underhanded tactics to get beans from vulnerable farmers who have been abandoned by governments in many countries. 

The World Meteorological Organisation has predicted that “there is about a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level in at least one of the next five years” and that “there is a 90% likelihood of at least one year between 2021 and 2025 becoming the warmest on record”.

By now, you must have seen how a heat dome is baking the American west coast, the rains in Europe and so on. You may have also noticed that the levels of poverty and vulnerability in your community are getting worse, not better, and that this is caused by a growing tendency for a few companies to concentrate and dominate value chains — all under the watchful eye of politicians.

If we want to change this picture, we must get serious about rejecting cosmetic ecology, rejecting greenwashing. I end with some more Gorz: 

We have to start by asking ourselves honestly: what do we want? A capitalism that adjusts to ecological constraints or an economic, social and cultural revolution that abolishes the constraints of capitalism and, in so doing, establishes a new relationship between humans and their community, environment and nature? Reform or revolution? DM

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