What is greenwashing? Watchdog bans Shell’s ‘misleading’ low-carbon ads

What is greenwashing? Watchdog bans Shell’s ‘misleading’ low-carbon ads

Three ads for Shell promoting its low-carbon products have been banned for failing to make any mention of the energy giant’s ongoing “large-scale” investment in oil and gas.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that Shell “misleadingly omitted” information about the proportion of its business made up of lower-carbon activity when oil and gas made up the “vast majority” of its operations.

Shell said it strongly disagreed with the ASA’s decision, claiming it could slow the UK’s move towards renewable energy.

Veronica Wignall co-director of Adfree Cities, said: “Today’s official ban on Shell’s adverts marks the end of the line for fossil fuel greenwashing in the UK.”

Last month, the Cop28 president was accused of attempting to greenwash his image after it was revealed that his team edited Wikipedia pages relating to his role as the CEO of an Abu Dhabi oil company.

Al Jaber is CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), which is carrying out a major expansion of the UAE’s fossil fuel production, as well as the UAE’s climate tsar.

A series of anonymous Wikipedia edits since March last year sought to play down his involvement in the oil business.

Members of Sultan Al Jaber’s team suggested that Wikipedia editors remove reference to a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline deal he signed in 2019, the Centre for Climate Reporting and the Guardian revealed.

One unknown user, who revealed they were being paid by Adnoc, suggested editors remove a reference to a $4bn agreement Al Jaber signed in 2019 for the development of oil pipeline infrastructure with US investment firms BlackRock and KKR.

Cop28 will be held in Dubai in November. Last week, 130 US and EU lawmakers called for Al Jaber to be removed from his post as the summit’s president.

A spokesperson for Adnoc told the Guardian: “We are very proud of Dr Sultan’s achievements as a global energy leader and regularly review content to ensure accuracy. Update requests were submitted to Wikipedia in the spring and summer of 2022, which were fully transparent and compliant as per Wikipedia’s guidelines.”

As climate change and environmental issues become increasingly prominent, companies and governments have started to put more emphasis on sustainability.

However, the general public is keen to weed out those that are greenwashing from the ones that are genuinely dedicated to sustainable practices.

So, what exactly is greenwashing?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to forms of advertising and marketing that deceptively claim a company is dedicated to being environmentally friendly.

In other words, it is when businesses make false or misleading statements about their sustainability practices to encourage consumers to spend more money on their products or services. Politicians, fashion brands and oil companies among others are often accused of adopting greenwashing strategies to cover up the reality of their unsustainable practices.

The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network analysed 500 websites in 2021 and found that up to 40 per cent of environmentally friendly claims might be misleading customers.

Greenwashing has increased in recent years to meet consumer demand for environmentally friendly products.

Why has Shell been accused of greenwashing?

A poster carrying the Shell logo, seen in Bristol last June, featured large text stating: “Bristol is Ready for Cleaner Energy,” and: “In the South West 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy.”

A TV ad, also seen last June, said 1.4 million households in the UK used 100% renewable electricity from Shell, and also mentioned that the firm was working on a wind project that could power six million homes and aimed to fit 50,000 electric car chargers nationwide by 2025.

But Shell omitted any mention that oil and gas continued to make up the ‘vast majority’ of its business, the Advertising Standards Authority said.

Shell UK said it wanted the ads to raise consumer awareness about its range of lower emissions energy products and increase demand for them.

The ASA noted that Shell’s operations gave rise to greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 that were estimated as equivalent to 1,375 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The ASA said: “While that estimate did not capture Shell’s absolute emissions in 2021, given that it included deductions linked to carbon offsets and did not cover certain commercial contracts, it nonetheless represented a large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

“We understood that large-scale oil and gas investment and extraction comprised the vast majority of the company’s business model in 2022 and would continue to do so in the near future.

“We therefore considered that, because (the ads) gave the overall impression that a significant proportion of Shell’s business comprised lower-carbon energy products, further information about the proportion of Shell’s overall business model that comprised lower-carbon energy products was material information that should have been included.

“Because the ads did not include such information, we concluded that they omitted material information and were likely to mislead.”

It ruled that the ads must not appear again.

Why have the Cop climate summits been accused of greenwashing?

This year’s UN Cop climate summit is not the first to be hit with controversy.

Last year, a large number of activists and organisations argued that Egypt hosting the Cop27 climate summit was a prime example of greenwashing.

They believe that Egypt, which has been deemed authoritarian by numerous watchdogs and accused of violating human rights, was using the climate change conference to seem more environmentally friendly and ethical.

The current Egyptian government is estimated to have imprisoned 60,000 political prisoners including environmentalists and climate activists.

The US state department previously revealed that it had noted significant human rights issues in the country, including unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture and life-threatening prison conditions.

Greta Thunberg believes Egypt’s human rights violations need to be addressed as Cop27 approaches (AFP via Getty Images)
Greta Thunberg believes Egypt’s human rights violations need to be addressed as Cop27 approaches (AFP via Getty Images)

Climate activist Greta Thunberg joined thousands of others and signed a human rights coalition petition asking Egypt to open up civic space and release its political prisoners.

The summit was also sponsored by Coca-Cola, which was named the “world’s top polluter” in an audit from Break Free From Plastic. More than 250,000 people signed a petition for the sponsorship to be revoked.

The company admitted in 2019 that it uses three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year.