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8th March 2021

Is ‘greenwashing’ by big tech deceiving us all?

Amelia Cummins discusses whether large tech corporations are really as green as they seem.
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Is ‘greenwashing’ by big tech deceiving us all?
Mike Langridge @

As the world becomes increasingly impacted by climate change, people are becoming ever more aware of their environmental footprint. Being environmentally friendly is now considered fashionable. In order to move with these new consumer priorities, many companies are participating in corporate ‘greenwashing’.

Greenwashing refers to the practice of using eco-friendly language or gestures to cover-up poor environmental behaviour. Companies do this to improve their public image, and help increase sales.

The term was first coined in the 1980s, and is often used to describe the actions of large corporations. However, it can also refer to governments, charities, and individual people.

Awareness of how we’re spending our money is increasing year on year. A 2015 study indicated that 66% of all consumers – 72% of consumers under the age of 20 – are willing to pay more for a product if they believe it to be ‘eco’.

As people become more intentional with their spending, corporate greenwashing will continue to increase. Therefore, it is more important than ever to see through the deception. 

Carbon offsetting: the easy way out?

Carbon offsetting is one of the most popular ways companies attempt to greenwash their destructive practices. The term describes how wealthy companies attempt to ‘buy their way out of’ environmental trouble. They do this by purchasing carbon credits and investing money in renewable energy and sustainable projects.

This enables businesses to continue their harmful actions, whilst presenting a ‘green’ image to the public. However, the practice has recently come under fire. According to a 2016 European Commission report, only 2% of global projects funded by carbon credits are genuinely contributing to reducing emissions. 

Google has claimed to be carbon neutral for the past thirteen years. It has relied heavily on carbon offsetting to excuse its high carbon emissions, instead of adapting its business practices.

Furthermore, when claiming to be carbon neutral, Google has only taken into account the facilities they own. They exclude any reference to the shipping of its products or the factories required for production. Therefore, for Google, and many other companies, being carbon neutral can be little more than an effective tagline.

Rename an arena and all is forgiven?

The proposal that Amazon’s business practices are incredibly damaging to the environment is hardly a new one. According to a 2018 study conducted by Amazon itself, the company admitted to releasing as much carbon dioxide annually as the whole of Norway. To combat this, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ has pledged to ensure Amazon is net-zero carbon by 2040.

In the wake of his climate pledge, Bezos also bought the KeyArena in Seattle, renaming it Climate Pledge Arena. He plans to make it the first American stadium to be powered entirely by renewable electricity. However, this declaration coincided with reports of silencing attempts on Amazon employee-led environmental groups, and a 15% increase in Amazon carbon emissions in the past year. Critics have said these pledges and grand gestures seem to equate to little more than a greenwashing PR stunt. 

A smokescreen of words

In January 2020, Microsoft proudly announced an ambitious goal of being carbon-negative by 2030. They aim to do this by removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as Microsoft has emitted since 1975.

However, they are yet to explain their plan for this. Of particular interest is which carbon emissions they plan to include in their measurement of past emissions, and more importantly, which ones they will omit. 

This eco-friendly pledge was tainted by the fact that a mere three months earlier a contradictory and much quieter announcement was made. In September 2019, Microsoft entered into a partnership with oil giant Chevron, and oilfield service provider Schlumberger.

This partnership was created in the hope of accelerating oil field development and increasing the extraction of fossil fuels, which would drastically increase carbon emissions. This suggests their 2030 goal is nothing more than a smokescreen of big, brave words. 

Esteemed environmentalist or destructive hypocrite?

During the Microsoft controversy, many people expected renowned philanthropist and environmentalist Bill Gates to address the hypocrisy of his former company. His failure to do so was unsurprising to some, as Gates has not been untainted by the suggestion of greenwashing himself.

Whilst he divested his direct interests in oil and gas companies in 2019, according to Bloomberg, earlier this month he increased his stake in Signature Aviation Plc to 30%. Signature Aviation Plc is the world’s largest operator of private jet bases, and therefore, an incredibly damaging company to the environment.

According to a 2019 Lund Universiversity research paper, a private jet journey emits nearly 40 times as much carbon dioxide per passenger as a commercial flight journey. The same paper also calculated that Gates’ 59 private flights in 2017 emitted around 1,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

This is a startling emission rate for one individual. Gates has described private jets as his “guilty pleasure”, belittling the devastation they cause. This involvement in a hypocritical hobby and a world-destroying business interest is hardly ideal. 

From corporations, to nations, and individuals themselves

Despite the discussion of three of the five current Big Tech corporations, this article has barely scratched the surface of greenwashing in the technology industry.

These corporations prey on our desire to decrease our environmental footprint. They count on our faith in them to not dig any deeper. They suck us in with easily digestible snippets and hopeful pledges, but end up spitting out more greenhouse gases.

It is therefore important that, before celebrating companies for their ‘green’ actions, we take a deeper look, past the PR-approved surface. Only this will help us slow this ever-expanding greenwashing pandemic. 

Microsoft, Amazon and Google were approached for comment. Amazon and Google did not respond. Microsoft said they had ‘no comment’ on their partnership with Chevron and Schlumberger, but did provide a link to a recent Microsoft blog post regarding their progress on their ‘2030 carbon negative’ target.

After this article was written, Chevron announced that, in partnership with Microsoft and Schlumberger, it plans to build a carbon capture plant in California. This plant will produce carbon negative power by converting agriculture biomass to electricity. Microsoft is yet to comment on this.

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