Three Shades of Greenwashing

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We report the results of a pilot study as a first step towards establishing a major new research initiative that will monitor, analyze, and expose digital climate discourse and deception. This initiative will be directed by Dr. Geoffrey Supran at the University of Miami in collaboration with computer scientists at the Algorithmic Transparency Institute (ATI), a project of the National Conference on Citizenship.

We perform a textual and visual content analysis of 2,325 organic social media posts generated by 22 major European Union-based fossil fuel producers, car manufacturers, and airlines on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube during the summer of 2022. This yields the following insights:

  • Climate silence: During a summer of unprecedented European heat waves, droughts, and wildfires, only a negligible handful of posts made any explicit reference to climate change or global heating.
  • Greenwashing: Two-thirds of oil and gas (72%), auto (60%), and airline (60%) companies’ social media posts paint a ‘Green Innovation’ narrative sheen on their ‘Business-as-usual’ operations, which are given less air time. This ratio of ‘green-to-dirty’ in each industry’s public communications (3-to-1, 4-to-1, and 1.2-to-1, respectively) misrepresents their contemporary commitments to decarbonization, implying that at least some of their social media content constitutes greenwashing. We interpret greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry to be most blatant, whereas that by airlines is notably subtle.
  • Misdirection: One-in-five oil and gas (23%), auto (22%), and airline (15%) company posts feature sports, social causes, and/or fashion. The overarching theme of this narrative of ‘Misdirection’ is to focus the audience’s attention on engaging topics unrelated to companies’ core business operations. This can variously (1) legitimize fossil fuel interests’ social license to operate; (2) distract attention away from firms’ core business roles, responsibilities, and contributions to the climate crisis; and (3) market brands as exclusive, desirable, and relevant.
  • Nature-rinsing (formally termed ‘executional greenwashing’): Statistical analysis reveals fossil fuel interests’ systematic use of nature-evoking imagery to enhance the ‘greenness’ of their brand image on social media. To our knowledge, this subtle intentionality to fossil fuel interests’ ‘green’ messaging has never previously been quantified.
  • Demographic greening and misdirection: Statistical tests show that companies (particularly car manufacturers) variously leverage not just the imagery of nature, but also of female-presenting people, non-binary-presenting people, non-Caucasian-presenting people, young people, experts, sportspeople, and celebrities to reinforce their messages of ‘Green Innovation’ and/or ‘Misdirection.’