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Fossil Fuel Companies Are ‘Talking Green but Acting Dirty,’ Harvard Researchers Find

The History of Science Department is located in the Science Center.
The History of Science Department is located in the Science Center. By Michael Gritzbach
By Christie K. Choi and Carrie Hsu, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard researchers published a report last week analyzing how European fossil fuel, car, and airline companies use social media to market their work as environmentally friendly.

Geoffrey J.S. Supran, a research fellow in the Department of History of Science, led the project in collaboration with the Algorithmic Transparency Institute. The research was commissioned by the Netherlands branch of Greenpeace, a global environmental advocacy group.

The report defines greenwashing as a form of marketing in which a company tries to make itself appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is, a practice the report describes as “talking ‘green’ but acting dirty.”

The team identified 2,416 social media posts between June 1 and July 31 — a time when Europe was experiencing record-high heat — and reviewed the text and visual components of the posts for signs of greenwashing, “from outright climate denial, to discourses of delay, to narratives of misdirection.”

The team found that 72 percent of social media posts by the oil and gas companies investigated as part of the study engaged in greenwashing, compared to 60 percent of posts by car manufacturers and airlines.

“We interpret greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry to be most blatant, whereas that by airlines is notably subtle,” the report states.

Some social media posts by fossil fuel companies include “subtle imagery of nature” in order to boost public perceptions of the companies’ social responsibility and draw attention away from environmentally unfriendly business practices, the report says.

Supran wrote in an email that the results of the paper point to a shift in the social media communications of fossil fuel companies. Rather than highlighting positive examples of direct engagement with climate change, the companies now prefer to use “deliberate and proactive marketing” to shape public perception “through language and visuals that establish green, innovative, charitable brand identities,” Supran wrote.

The report determined that the presence of nature imagery in social media posts had a statistically significant correlation with the use of marketing language focused on environmental sustainability.

“This probably seems intuitive, and yet to our knowledge this definitely demonstrates for the first time how fossil fuel interests are strategically appropriating the beauty of nature to strengthen their green messaging,” Supran wrote.

He added that cases of climate denial were prevalent especially in the late 1980s and mid- to late 2000s, when fossil fuel companies left a trail of “smoking gun documents” that detailed explicit campaigns to emphasize the uncertainty of climate change and chart rebranding strategies.

Supran wrote that the research will continue to aid congressional investigations and state, county, and city lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for “their decades of climate damages, denial, and delay.”

The report comes amid calls for a ban on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the European Union.

Greenpeace EU and 40 other organizations have launched a European Citizens’ Initiative petition — a special type of petition to which the European Commission is legally required to respond if more than one million people sign in less than a year — urging the Commission to ban all advertising for fossil fuels and transport services that use fossil fuels. The petition has obtained just over 350,000 signatures since October 2021.

“Companies need to stop treating the climate crisis as a PR issue that can be fixed with glossy press releases and clever ads,” Supran wrote.

“There’s nothing wrong, of course, with companies communicating their decarbonization commitments and actions to the public,” he added. “The issue here is that they are misrepresenting themselves and misleading the public by generally not putting enough money where their mouths are.”

—Staff Writer Christie K. Choi can be reached at christie.choi@thecrimson.com.

—Staff Writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at carrie.hsu@thecrimson.com.

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